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With Help From New Technology, More Disabled Join the Work Force

October 25, 1998|STUART SILVERSTEIN

The long battle to expand job opportunities for people with disabilities may finally be paying off.

Some recent evidence suggests that the Americans With Disabilities Act, a landmark federal civil rights law passed in 1990, has begun chipping away at the severe problem of unemployment among the disabled.

Experts speculate that the nation's tight labor market and the new technology that helps disabled workers perform jobs also are contributing to the apparent trend.

Growing acceptance of the disabled in the workplace is evident at such companies as EarthLink Network Inc., a leading Internet service provider based in Pasadena.

Jon Irwin, EarthLink's vice president for member services and support, said he had concerns when a blind job candidate, David Redman, was recommended for a technical-support position early last year. Irwin said his worries stemmed from the "visual" nature of the job, in that technical support employees constantly need to glean written information off a computer screen.

That obstacle, however, was overcome with the use of speech synthesizer equipment and software that "reads" aloud the information displayed by the computer. Redman also sometimes uses a device that translates what appears on the screen into Braille impulses that he can feel and, thus, read.

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The result: EarthLink wound up hiring four more totally or partly blind workers who, like Redman, were referred by the Braille Institute of Los Angeles.

Irwin said he has found that disabled people sometimes require more training and work more slowly than other employees, but that those drawbacks can be offset by the quality of their performance.

"What you find are employees who probably are more focused and more dedicated to doing quality work," Irwin said.

For Redman, a 35-year-old from Azusa who lost his sight at age 14, it's the first time in more than a decade that he has been able to hold a steady job. "A lot of companies are scared about how much it might cost them to hire someone with a disability, and they don't know that the person can do the job. What I think I showed EarthLink was that I was ready, able and willing to do the job."

Partly as a result of varying standards of what constitutes a disability, national employment studies of the disabled have sometimes yielded ambiguous findings.

But encouraging news has come from a prominent researcher in the field, Peter D. Blanck, director of the Law, Health Policy and Disability Center at the University of Iowa.

In a major study released this summer, researchers led by Blanck reported that unemployment dropped from 38% to 14% between 1990 and 1997 among a group of 5,000 people in Oklahoma who are mentally retarded or have other mental impairments.

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Although government statistics on employment of the disabled are limited, a report released two years ago found that the percentage of people with severe disabilities who were working climbed from 23.3% in 1991 to 26.1% in 1994.

A more downbeat finding came out of a widely noted report released in July by the National Organization on Disability, a nonprofit group in Washington. It found that only 29% of adults with disabilities work full or part time, down from 34% in 1986 and a far cry from the 79% level of employment for adults with no disabilities.

Still, the National Organization on Disability acknowledges that more people with severe disabilities were included in its most recent survey, a factor that could have skewed the results.

Blanck said the available research, taken together, shows that "there appears to be an upward trend, but there's a long way to go up the hill." Unemployment among the disabled, he said, "is a great social problem, however you cut it."

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Women on Board: More women are moving up to the boards of the nation's biggest companies but the gains are coming slowly.

A new report has found that women hold 11.1% of the board seats at Fortune 500 companies, up from 10.6% a year earlier and up from 8.3% five years ago. Yet the study, by the New York-based nonprofit group Catalyst, found that 71 of the Fortune 500 companies still have no female directors, including such California corporations as Apple Computer, Atlantic Richfield and 3Com.

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Cleaning Up: "Neat freaks" are rife in the workplace. In a survey of more than 900 working adults, office furniture maker Steelcase Inc. found that 33% of those polled would put themselves in that tidy category. Only 2% own up to being "slobs."

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Times staff writer Stuart Silverstein can be reached by phone at (213) 237-7887 or by e-mail at stuart.silverstein@latimes.com.

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