Sunday, April 24, 2011

Virginia pushes state's businesses to hire more disabled people

From the Richmond Post-Dispatch:

Virginia Commonwealth University policy analyst Jack Brandt (pictured) is like a lot of young professionals.

The 31-year old works, socializes and is looking to move ahead in the world.

But unlike most other people in his position, Brandt, a former Boy Scout who has a degree in political science and philosophy, has cerebral palsy. He gets around in a motorized wheelchair and needs help with basic functions.

Other than the frustration of not being able to always communicate his points verbally, life is good, Brandt said.

Brandt is one of thousands of disabled Virginians working throughout the state every day. Their disabilities range from intellectual to severely physical, but in most cases the disabilities don't interfere with their duties.

Virginia's Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services is pushing businesses to bring even more disabled people into the workforce.

"We have to work with employers to get the word out" that there is an untapped workforce, said Joseph Ashley, assistant commissioner for grants and special programs at the state agency. Ashley is blind.

The agency works with businesses to find qualified applicants, to find ways to make the workplace accessible to people with disabilities, to train current employees and to find tax incentives for those who hire the disabled.

It also works with the disabled to find and maintain jobs as well as providing resources, including tips on how to earn more money without the risk of losing Medicare or Social Security the current difficulties in the job market for the disabled.

While the jobless rate for the general workforce has been inching downward in recent months, the unemployment rate nationally for the disabled in March was 15.6 percent, up from 13.9 in March 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics.

"It is staggeringly high," Doug Payne, director of communications for Greater Richmond ARC, said of the unemployment rate.

ARC provides training and jobs at its center in North Richmond and elsewhere for more than 220 people with physical and intellectual disabilities.

Payne said businesses need to understand that the disabled are solid workers who make the best of opportunities because they appreciate the job.

"In my experience, people with disabilities, perhaps because they have such difficulty securing and keeping employment in the first place, seek something beyond monetary compensation. They recognize in a much keener sense than a lot of us 'abled' workers the nobility in work itself," Payne said.

One of the major obstacles faced by those helping get the disabled jobs is perception.

James Rothrock, commissioner of the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, knows firsthand the negative perceptions and challenges of disabled people.

Rothrock lost the use of his legs after a sledding accident in 1965.

At school, he had to be carried up and down three flights of stairs to get to class. When he applied to college in 1967, only three schools in the country could accommodate him.

After graduating from college, Rothrock said getting a job was very difficult because "I couldn't get into a lot of buildings."

"It's been interesting to see, after four decades, the vast changes. Yet the transparency that one feels when one is seen through or looked over is still there, here in 2011, to a degree," he said.

Yet Rothrock cherishes the opportunity to prove doubters wrong and remind people that a wheelchair is not an impediment.

"I still get joy, when people assume that I might not be who I am, to remind them that I've an IQ of three digits, a couple of degrees and have been appointed by a couple of governors," he grinned. "That's all."

To help counter the negative perceptions and to encourage business owners to consider hiring the disabled, the state agency joined several other agencies across the country last year in running a series of public service announcements urging business owners to "think beyond the label."

The campaign stressed, in a humorous way, that a disabled person could do most any job that a nondisabled person could do. It then sent viewers to its website for information.

Getting that message to the people making hiring decisions is vital to changing minds, disability experts say.

"The biggest barrier (for getting the disabled work) is attitude," said Fred P. Orelove, executive director at the Partnership for People with Disabilities, an affiliate of the School of Education at VCU. He's also Brandt's boss.

"Many employers believe that a person with disabilities is less reliable, less dependable, that they won't work fast," Orelove said. Follow-up surveys with employers who have hired the disabled prove all that false, he said.

Bernard Mantlo, president of Henrico County-based high tech firm Synergy Systems, said some employers are wary of hiring disabled workers because of a "fear of the unknown."

"People with disabilities, I've found, make some of the best employees," he said.

Locally, several companies and nonprofits hire disabled workers, including HandCraft Cleaners, Ukrop's Homestyle Foods and Positive Vibe Café.

Several companies also belong to the Virginia Business Leadership Network, a business-to-business group that helps educate employers on the benefits of hiring the disabled.

Mantlo, who has hired about 10 workers with varying degrees of disabilities in the past five years, has worked with the state agency to help find qualified applicants for his company.

"DRS does a tremendous job finding the right fit, looking for the skill sets that we need," he said of the state agency.

When VCU's Orelove went looking for a policy analyst almost two years ago, Brandt's skill set stood out. Brandt "had experience both on a personal and professional level. He's very thoughtful, very funny and has a very deep sense of social justice," Orelove said.

While Brandt uses a wheelchair and is difficult to understand, he works with policymakers to come up with programs that help people with disabilities as well as dealing with families, advocates, health care providers and politicians on issues facing the disabled.

And if a full-time job wasn't enough, Brandt also is working on his master's degree in rehabilitation counseling at VCU and likely will pursue a doctorate degree.

"He's very aware of the fact that he's disabled," Orelove said, "but that disability is not his identity."