Fewer with Disabilities at Work since Passage of Civil Rights Act

Article excerpt

A LAW passed in 1990 to help Americans with disabilities may actually be keeping them jobless.

Since Congress passed the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 to ban discrimination against people with disabilities, the number who are working has declined slightly.

According to a recent survey by Vocational Econometrics Inc., a research firm in Louisville, Ky., the percentage of men with disabilities who are working dropped from about 34 percent in 1991 to 30.2 percent in 1993. By comparison, the employment rate among men without disabilities increased from 81.2 percent in 1991 to 82 percent in 1993.

"The act has only been implemented for a short period of time, and what we may be seeing is a short-term effect," says Anthony Gamboa, author of the survey. But "it is clear that the {ADA} has done nothing to reverse a 15-year trend of decreasing employment for males with disability."

But advocacy groups and experts in the field contend that the law, in and of itself, was never intended to reverse the 68 percent unemployment rate of people with disabilities. The ADA is a civil rights law - analogous to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 - that gives the 49 million Americans with disabilities the right to work. And advocates say that is a boon to people with disabilities. But as the civil rights and women's movements have shown, progress can be slow. Many say it will take 10 to 20 years before they see substantial changes.

"Most of America still harbors incredible ignorance, myth, fear, and superstition towards those of us with disabilities," says Rick Douglas, executive director of the President's Committee on Employment of People With Disabilities (PCEPD) in Washington. "How many years did it take for a segment of the business community to remove its ignorance, fear, superstition, and myths about the female worker?"

Experts point to other barriers keeping people with disabilities jobless:

* Corporations fear litigation if they hire workers with disabilities.

* Employers perceive high costs to accommodate workers with disabilities. (Under ADA, employers must provide "reasonable accommodation" for such workers.)

* Health insurance companies usually won't provide coverage for those with pre-existing conditions.

"The ADA is like unlocking a door. The door has got to be unlocked before you can go through it. But other things are also needed ... in order to push it open," says Susan Daniels, associate commissioner for disability at the Social Security Administration.

"{Employers} perceive themselves as possibly having to go to extraordinary means in terms of accommodating persons with a disability," Mr. Gamboa says.

Yet studies show that about 80 percent of accommodation costs average less than $500, according to the Job Accommodations Network (JAN), an ADA corporate hotline sponsored by the PCEPD. A survey for Chicago-based Sears, Roebuck and Co., found that of the 436 accomodations the retailer made between 1978 and 1992, the average cost was $121; and 69 percent cost nothing at all.

Advocates say it's costly not to hire able workers with disabilities. …