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They Have The Ability, So Why Aren't More Working?

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: John Williams, an award-winning columnist, has been writing about disability issues for 22 years, and is knowledgeable about assistive technology products. This article, published March 20, 2002, is reprinted with permission of the National Organization on Disability. Further information is available at: http://www.nod.org. If you have any comments or questions, you may contact John Williams at JMMAW@aol.com.

It is easy to get me angry when I see and hear about vast numbers of unemployed people with disabilities in the country. Nearly 10 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), more than two years after the Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act (TWWIIA), and nearly a year after Section 508 of the 1998 Rehabilitation Act became laws, more than 10 million people with disabilities of working age are unemployed. This is a social, cultural and economic tragedy for our nation, and a mystery to me.

Clearly, the abilities of people with disabilities are known to employers of all sizes in the public and private sectors. Movies, television, radio and newspapers flood the market with stories about people with disabilities achieving independence.

Over the past two weeks I enthusiastically witnessed some of the world's best athletes with disabilities perform with grace, courage and discipline at the winter Paralympic games in Salt Lake City. During the 20th Anniversary Communications Awards sponsored by the National Council on Communicative Disorders (NCCD) at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington, DC, I saw artists with disabilities perform, and joyfully witnessed the praise given to Lordy Smith, who is deaf, for her community leadership. After Taro Alexander received the Charles Van Riper Lifetime Achievement award for his work with stuttering, it was deeply satisfying to hear him tell the audience, "I am not ashamed to stutter." Alexander is the founder and artistic director and teacher at Our Time Theater Company, in New York City. He works with teenagers who stutter.

We often see national leaders recognizing the abilities of people with disabilities. At the opening ceremonies of the Paralympics, athletes with disabilities were praised by President George Bush. At the NCCD ceremony, artists with disabilities and community activists were praised by former U.S. Senator and astronaut John Glenn, his wife Annie Glenn, Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont, and others. But apparently this recognition is not capturing the attention of employers.

Too frequently, I hear employers say the reasons they are not hiring people with disabilities is they are unaware of assistive technology, and can't find qualified people with disabilities to hire anyway.

I don't know where employers have been these last 25 years, but because of assistive technology, probably hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities are working as writers, doctors, lawyers, draftsmen, teachers, scientists, artists, programmers, truck drivers, telephone operators, researchers, etc.

It's true that a major hurdle for vast numbers of unemployed people with disabilities is a lack of skills or training. This situation could be corrected in our schools by introducing students with disabilities to assistive technology from the moment they enter a classroom. Access to this technology gives users the opportunity to compete with students who are not disabled, and develop skills for competitive employment. Another benefit to providing students with disabilities access to assistive technology in the classroom is the exposure and development of positive attitudes among their classmates without disabilities.

During the NCCD ceremony, it was thrilling to hear Shadia El-Hage tell the audience of the empowering opportunities a talking computer gives her. Hage has cerebral palsy and used an augmentative communications device to deliver her speech. This was an eye-opener for the audience. Sarah Reinhold of Silver Spring, MD, said, "I had no idea that this technology existed." For William Caragan of Alexandria, VA, Hage's presentation showed that we are "moving into the world of the unknown miracle technology."

I differ with Caragan's view of assistive technology. These products aren't miracle technology. They eliminate communications barriers for people with disabilities while expanding education, employment, recreation and information opportunities. There is no miracle in that. A miracle will occur when more people with disabilities are employed through assistive technology.

Employers can find qualified students with disabilities attending colleges and universities, just by contacting campus offices for student services. Employers can also find people with disabilities by contacting any number of disability organizations.

One way to satisfy the shortage of information technology workers is to start a national employment training program for either unemployed or underemployed people with disabilities. Sponsored by public and private funds, the goal would be to employ people with disabilities in both sectors immediately after their training. The country cannot afford to let these minds waste away.

For employers in search of tax deductions or credits, hiring people with disabilities is the best long-term tax benefit you can receive.

It's time for employers to hire more people with disabilities. They will find a plethora of abilities among them.

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