Monday, April 27, 2009

Hawaiians with disabilities face unemployment woes

From The Honolulu Advertiser. In the picture, at the Lanakila Pacific life skills training facility on Bachelot Street, employment training instructor Cheryl Sabey works with trainee Gerald Ching in the packaging area.

Like a growing number of Hawai'i residents, 24-year-old Brandon Young needs a job.

He's scoured depressingly meager help-wanted ads. He's hit the pavement hoping to find something — anything — to generate a paycheck. But like so many other would-be wage earners these days, Young hasn't been able to get a break.

But Young isn't like the other highly motivated applicants with whom he competes. Diagnosed with the degenerative eye disease retinitis pigmentosa at age 10, Young is legally blind.

Young's travails in securing basic, entry-level employment underscore what many believe to be worsening employment prospects for people with disabilities, who have traditionally suffered significantly higher unemployment rates than nondisabled workers.

At the same time, state budget cuts are draining money from the vocational programs the disabled need to train them for the workforce.

From October 2008 through March of this year, the national unemployment rate increased from 5.9 percent to 8.9 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Over that same span, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities increased from 11.1 percent to 13.1 percent, with a high of 14 percent in February 2009.

The state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations does not specifically track unemployment figures for people with disabilities. The state jobless rate in March was 7.1 percent, the highest in 31 years.

While the national figures indicate that the rates of unemployment for disabled and nondisabled workers have risen in step, organizations that work with Hawai'i's disabled population say the economic downturn has put disabled workers in a particularly precarious position.

"When the economy is bad, the impact is usually felt most by anyone on the fringe or anyone in a marginalized group that needs extra support or assistance," said Robert Stodden, director of the University of Hawai'i Center on Disability Studies.

The Americans with Disabilities Act precludes employers from discriminating against people with disabilities.

"It's not legal to take (a) person's disabilities into account in hiring decisions, but it happens, even if doesn't happen directly," Stodden said. "If you have 20 applicants and one with a disability who needs accommodations or adjustments, the typical response (from employers) is to hire one who doesn't have any of those. As the pool of qualified applicants increases, people on the margins tend not to be selected."

Stodden said a potentially bigger problem is the effect the economy has had on funding for agencies that provide vocational training for people with disabilities.

Even when the economy improves, the disruption in vocational training is likely to have long-term implications for people with disabilities.

"These budget cuts will have a negative effect on programs that provide support, through accommodations or job coaches, to people with disabilities who are trying to get jobs," he said. "Hawai'i is behind the rest of the country in unemployment ... but we'll lag behind the rest of the country in recovering, as well."

Recovery may be even further off than initially feared.

Last October, the state Department of Human Services' cash-strapped Vocational Rehabilitation and Services for the Blind Division implemented an "order of selection" that limited vocational rehabilitation services to those in greatest need, effectively shutting out scores of new and existing clients with disabilities.

On Thursday, with its Basic Grant allocations already nearing the limit, the division sent a letter to several community rehabilitation programs informing them of their worsening economic straits.

"Out of necessity," the letter read, "we have issued instructions to staff that are restraining and restrictive with the remainder of the grant to continue services for as long as possible in this fiscal year and until the receipt of new grant funds."

The letter, signed by administrator Joe Cordov, outlined several austerity measures, including suspension of all new purchases of goods and services funded by the grant, and a review of ongoing purchases and obligations for possible reduction, cancellation or deferment.

"This unwanted dilemma is expected to affect (vocational rehabilitation) applicants, participants and partners statewide for the duration of the current fiscal year and until additional funds are available," the letter read.

Marian Tsuji, president and chief executive officer of Lanakila Pacific, said her organization has been "hugely" affected by the recent cuts in funding.

Lanakila Pacific provides a wide range of vocational and life-skills training to people with disabilities. Clients typically receive nine to 18 months of training before being placed in jobs. The jobs themselves are typically in low-skill or entry-level positions, many of them part time.

But with rising unemployment, even these jobs are disappearing quickly.

Lanakila maintains relationships with employers who value the reliable, well-trained clients the program produces. But the "order of selection" dictate has severely restricted the number of clients Lanakila can train.

"It's a hard call," Tsuji said. "With a limited amount of funds, how do you make that call?"

Young received vocational and life-skills training from Ho'opono, a state program for the blind and visually impaired, and is capable of performing just about any entry-level task a sighted person can.

But with the economy in disarray and a growing number of qualified (and over-qualified) workers competing for fewer openings, Young believes he has been excluded from consideration for some jobs specifically because of his disability, despite protections guaranteed by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Young's latest frustration came when he dropped in on United Cerebral Palsy hoping to find work as a telephone solicitor.

What happened next is in dispute.

Young said he interviewed for the job and was told he wouldn't be hired because he couldn't see the computer monitor.

"At first, I just walked out, but then I thought, 'Heck no,' " Young said. "An organization like that is supposed to help and support people with disabilities."

But Nancy Sandell, a UCP manager, said there were no openings at the time. She acknowledged that Young visited the office and that she showed him what one of the jobs entailed, but said that he neither interviewed nor applied for employment.

Sandell said her office has employed numerous people with disabilities and has previously made accommodations for a visually impaired employee.

"If we had an opening and he applied, of course he would have been considered," Sandell said.

Whatever the case, Young, who is taking online courses from San Diego State University in hopes of improving his prospects of working in vocational rehabilitation, said the stress of not finding work at UCP has been compounded by the realization that being disabled in a depressed economy leaves little hope for finding gainful employment any time soon.

"I'm willing to work," he said. "I just need to find a job."