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Doing What Works

Changing attitudes are feeding a trend to bring more severely disabled people into mainstream jobs.

April 12, 1998|LESLIE EARNEST | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At Dean Witter Reynolds Inc. in Laguna Hills, Dewy Johnson lords over the mailroom in good humor and fine fashion, wearing navy pinstripe trousers, a white shirt, a yellow tie and shiny black half-boots, which, he announces proudly, cost $46.

Johnson, 55, was hired a year ago after the branch contacted a job training center for people with developmental disabilities. Dean Witter needed temporary help during the tax crunch, operations manager Diane Burk said, but by the time the workload had lightened, Johnson had become part of the team.

"He's an excellent worker," Burk said. "We like him so much, we're keeping him, period."

Johnson and Dean Witter are just two beneficiaries of what businesses and vocational groups say is a growing workplace trend. Nudged by a hearty economy, a shrinking unemployment rate and a growing awareness that disabled people can make solid employees, businesses are increasingly hiring individuals with serious impairments such as autism, Down syndrome and mental retardation.

Nationwide, the number of severely disabled workers who have snagged mainstream jobs shot to nearly 140,000 in 1995-the latest year for which figures are available-from about 20,000 in 1987. A recent California survey shows that almost twice as many developmentally disabled workers now hold community jobs as did seven years ago.

The trend seems likely to continue, as vocational groups step up their efforts to find jobs for disabled workers, and as federal and state governments pour more funds into training programs.

"What has changed over time is that people with developmental disabilities have shown they can be a critical resource in the work force," said Kent Yamashiro, program specialist for Harbor Regional Center, a Torrance vocational agency. "Now, we're at the point where a number of large corporations have made commitments to hire people with disabilities."

In Los Angeles County, Nissan Motor Corp. USA, American Honda Motor Co., Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc. and Mattel Inc. now employ dozens of developmentally disabled workers.

Over the last decade, Pizza Hut has hired about 17,000 workers with mental or physical disabilities, most in part-time jobs.

"We've already had a lot of success," said Tim Cate, tax credit manager for Tricon Global Restaurants Inc., which owns the Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and KFC chains. "Ideally, we would like to expand it beyond Pizza Hut to the other Tricon companies."

Now, a growing number of corporate leaders have become activists in this effort, forming business advisory committees to encourage more companies to hire disabled workers. Linkages, a group formed by Jim Click Jr., co-owner of the Tuttle Click Automotive Group, which has dealerships in Orange County and Tucson, has helped 100 disabled people land jobs in the Tucson area over the last year.

"Our goal is to eventually take this to every community in the country," Click said. "These people do a fantastic job."

Not all advocates, however, are pleased with the progress. Some say that too many disabled workers are barely clinging to the bottom rung of the corporate ladder.

"Unfortunately, people with disabilities have only been considered for the four 'F' jobs: food, filth, flowers and factories," said Rick Berkobien, a programs director for the Arc, a national volunteer organization formed to helped mentally disabled people and their families. "We want to see people ... promoted up the ladder."

And despite the healthy economy, advocates say, a large percentage of disabled workers who would like to have jobs remain unemployed or can only land part-time positions that often have no benefits. Further, the families of some seriously disabled people worry about their loved ones' possibly losing government benefits, even if they take a low-paying job.

Vocational agencies say they are working hard to find decent jobs for their clients. But some businesses remain leery about hiring them, and some disabled workers are hesitant to step into the general work force.

Even when the job connection is made, there may still be obstacles to overcome as some disabled workers learn slowly, have difficulty juggling tasks and may require much repetition to stay on track.

But the success stories have begun to mount, an encouraging sign for those who say this movement will ultimately benefit both business and society.

Starring in one such story is Dewy Johnson, who tends to the small mail room at Dean Witter. The Mission Viejo resident sorts and weighs letters, keeps the shelves stocked--and banters with other employees when they stop by to drop off their mail.

Johnson, who is planning to be married next year, said he intends to remain at Dean Witter indefinitely and that he saves most of his paycheck. "I'm staying here," he said. "All my money goes to Orange National Bank."

Employers can reap several benefits from hiring workers with disabilities. These employees generally are enthusiastic, and their turnover rates are low.

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