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Economic Boom Leaves Disabled Workers Behind


The great economic boom of the 1990s lifted the fortunes of almost every disadvantaged group, including racial minorities, high school dropouts and single mothers.

But new studies and employment specialists say that there has been a notable exception: the millions of disabled Americans. As a group, researchers say, their employment and earnings actually fell over the last decade. The lack of progress is considered one of today's most puzzling and controversial labor issues, especially given recent worker shortages, technological advances and the decade-old Americans With Disabilities Act.

The decline, particularly among disabled men, may be related to the way government benefits have been disbursed, to new pressures on employers and to unintended consequences of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Historically, the work experiences of disabled people rose and fell with the rest of the work force during economic swings. But between 1989 and 1998, average inflation-adjusted incomes for disabled workers dropped 4%, even though real incomes for workers overall rose 5%, according to a new study by researchers at Cornell University and the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.

"Not everyone has shared in the American economic renaissance," President Clinton said recently. "We all know there are people and places who have been left behind, including millions of Americans with significant disabilities who want to go to work."

Hector Reyes, who is nearly blind, knows that all too well. For the last seven years, the 34-year-old Lynwood man has been searching to put his computer trade school degree to use. "But nothing worked out. Sometimes I would get discouraged and stop for six months. Then I'd try it again," he said.

This summer he was introduced to Jobs for All, a new state program that helped him find work. About a month ago, he started at $8 an hour, performing telephone research on foreclosures and inputting data at Real Estate Transaction Network in Los Angeles. "It's just part time, but I enjoy it," he said.

Experts say some disabled workers have been held back by federal rules that until only recently cut off public medical assistance if their earnings exceeded a certain amount. The Americans With Disabilities Act may also be partly to blame. While it requires companies to make reasonable accommodations for disabled workers, some believe the law has had a chilling effect on hiring because it raised fears of additional costs and lawsuits.

Advocates for the disabled attribute their lagging employment to the changing natures of many people's jobs. More and more, they say, employers are requiring workers to perform a variety of tasks instead of narrowly defined jobs, which often are most suitable for the disabled.

Paul Harvey, a manager at Nissan Corp.'s sales headquarters in Carson, supervises a 10-year-old program employing developmentally disabled people in the mail room, cafeteria and fitness center. He says multi-tasking trends are at work across the nation, with companies wanting workers who can drive cars as well as wash them.

"They're asking workers to do more things, which makes it hard if you're limited by a disability," said Jo Sinha, who develops job programs for Peckham Inc., a nonprofit agency in Lansing, Mich., that helps people who have disabilities or are on welfare. The result is that, even in an airtight labor market like Lansing's, where unemployment is in the 2% range, disabled workers are struggling as hard as ever to get jobs.

There are no precise measurements of unemployment for the nearly 10% of working-age adults with disabilities, or about 15 million people. But estimates of joblessness run as high as 70% for those with severe physical and mental limitations.

The new studies, which draw on U.S. Census Bureau surveys, show that the overall number of disabled people with jobs fell in the period from 1992, when the national economy bottomed out, through 1998. The employment drop was particularly striking among men. Researchers at the University of Michigan said employment among men with disabilities, ages 30 to 59, fell between 10% and 25% during the 1990s.

The trend was less dramatic among women, according to the study released last month. Still, the report said: "The contrast between the employment growth among able-bodied women and the employment stagnation among women with limitations is quite stark."

Some economists, including Tom Hale at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, say the data on the disabled population are not strong enough to draw such conclusions. And he notes that his agency is spending $500,000 to comply with an executive order to produce accurate and reliable data on people with disabilities.

Even so, a growing number of researchers say the material available from government surveys, while imperfect, is more than solid enough to buttress the main point: that disabled workers are not sharing in the economic boom.

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