The Invisible Workforce

The physically disabled have made considerable progress in the workforce. But despite record unemployment and a critical shortage of skilled IT workers, those with mental or intellectual disabilities remain largely invisible to employers.

Gavin Simpson first tasted the bitterness of rejection years ago on the playground, looking for pickup basketball games. "He waited and he waited and he waited," recalls his father, Wendel. "Sometimes the kids just looked right past him and asked someone to go out and find another player. My God, that hurt!"

Gavin, now 31, is still being rejected. And it still hurts. He's a bright, accomplished computer graphics designer. And he's earning straight A's toward his second college degree. But he's been turned down by 12 employers so far. The reason, says his father: his autism.

The physically disabled have made much progress in the workplace since the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990. Experts say that discrimination has decreased and that employers generally are willing to provide the special accommodations needed by employees with physical impairments.

But significantly less progress has been made by those with mental, or intellectual, disabilities. That includes some 6 million adult Americans who are mentally retarded or have psychiatric illnesses such as schizophrenia or neurological disorders such as autism.

People with such disabilities are often overlooked by employers. Indeed, 60%, or 3.6 million, aren't working, according to InfoUse, a firm in Berkeley, Calif., that specializes in information about people with disabilities.

Fear and ignorance of people with disabilities exists, and such individuals are often stigmatized. Even if job applicants elect not to disclose their disabilities, they may exhibit odd mannerisms that put off employers. For example, people with autism, a neurological disorder usually present at birth, often have poor social and communication skills and shun personal contact.

"Interviewers look positively at my resume because I'm very well-qualified," says Gavin Simpson, who has won several prizes in computer graphics and wants to work in computer animation. "But I don't know what they think about the drawbacks there might be - that I'm somehow a little bit 'different.' They don't give anybody brownie points for being autistic."

Simpson says he's undergone communication and behavior therapy to improve his interpersonal skills, and he always discloses his autism to prospective information technology employers. "They seem to be OK with it, but ultimately, I get a rejection letter," he says.

Many government and private organizations for the mentally disabled focus on treatment but not on job training and placement. And those programs that are employment-oriented are often geared toward finding minimum-wage and subminimum-wage jobs in what advocates for the mentally disabled call the three F's -- food, filing and filth.

But advocates say people with mental disabilities represent a rich and largely untapped pool of candidates for IT jobs, from data entry to programming to Web design. Barbara Granger, director of training and dissemination at Philadelphia-based Matrix Research Institute, a nonprofit research and training center for the mentally and physically disabled, says many of the mentally ill people whom Matrix trains for jobs ask specifically for computer training.

"When you ask them why they want to work with a computer, you get right into some of their issues, such as having trouble concentrating and having some problems communicating with other people," Granger says. "The computer provides great structure for them."

Larry Kohn, who directs training in computer use at the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation at Boston University, says his students tell him that they like working with computers because PCs have no prejudice against mental illness. They also like the immediate and unambiguous feedback -- something they don't always get from people, he says.

Beth Keirns, a data entry clerk at Alexander, Aronson, Finning & Co. in Westboro, Mass., was diagnosed with autism 11 years ago at age 21. She says she often inadvertently offends people, because her disorder makes it hard for her to understand "social nuances."

Keirns, who holds a degree in biology, credits her six years of successful employment at the accounting firm in part to a sensitive supervisor who has acted as her "advocate" with other employees. And "the computer seems to turn me on in certain areas," she adds. "I don't have to worry about offending it."

Reasonable Accommodation

In a 1996 report, the President's Committee on Employment of People With Disabilities wrote: "People with mental, cognitive and psychiatric disabilities constitute perhaps the single most persecuted and least understood group of individuals in the disability community. The stigma associated with mental illness remains an oppressive obstacle to employment."

There has been some slow progress since then, but that statement is still essentially true today, says committee co-chairman Neil Jacobson. He has cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that afflicts some 500,000 Americans.

The Americans With Disabilities Act requires employers to make "reasonable accommodation" in the workplace for people with disabilities. Accommodating the mentally disabled is often easy and inexpensive, experts say. Flexible work hours, time off for therapy appointments, a quiet place to work or job coaches - often provided for free by rehabilitation agencies - may be required.

When asked what reasonable accommodations should be made for the mentally disabled, Jacobson, who is also vice president of corporate systems architecture at Wells Fargo Bank NA in San Francisco, says, "Whatever it takes to get the job done. That's what I do for all the people who work for me, whether they are disabled or not."

And Jacobson urges job applicants and employees to disclose their disabilities. "This is part of who you are, and I would hope you are proud of who you are," he says. "I'd hope this would be done not negatively or pitifully, but rather with pride."

But Paolo del Vecchio, a senior analyst at the Center for Mental Health Services at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in Rockville, Md., says, "With the stigma of psychiatric disabilities still so prevalent, disclosure is really an individual decision based on circumstances." At a previous job, he chose to disclose his own depression.

A database administrator who asked not to be named says he has been diagnosed as clinically depressed and takes medication. "It is difficult to hold down a computer job when you are depressed," he acknowledges. "A lot of times you feel worse than the people around you. Others have the typical workplace crises, but they are much worse crises to me."

The man says he disclosed his depression during his first job interview with his current employer and was asked back for a second interview with a promise to "accommodate" his disability if he was hired. "They made the offer, but they didn't really understand what the issue is, and the accommodations haven't been made," he says.

Mentors Lighten the Load

Larry Abramson is the vocational director of the Back to Work Program at St. Luke's House Inc., a psychiatric rehabilitation program in Bethesda, Md. He says the employment rate for people with "serious mental illness" is just 20% in the U.S., but 65% of the mentally ill graduates of his program are working. As for accommodations, he says, "there is no magic. High-quality management practices that you want to use with all your employees work well for people with psychiatric disabilities."

Andy Imparato, president of the American Association of People with Disabilities in Washington, says it's often helpful to assign a mentor to a new employee with a mental disability. "Make sure you don't bring in someone and expect them to just sink or swim," he says.

The Prudential Insurance Company of America in Newark, N.J., hires people with different types of mental disabilities. Some come in through regular hiring channels and others through "supported-employment" programs, in which a nonprofit agency sponsors disabled employees and provides on-the-job coaches.

There are several advantages to supported-employment programs, says Bruce Dalziel, senior vice president of financial management at Prudential. The coaches cost the employer nothing and can relieve supervisors from having to provide the time-consuming training that disabled employees may require.

"Another advantage is if that person doesn't work out, the supported-employment provider is able to locate a more appropriate job," he says. "One fear managers have is having to fire someone with a significant disability."

Dalziel says he's been involved in the placement of 15 mentally disabled employees at Prudential, and they have enriched the work environment in subtle ways. He says watching these dedicated, enthusiastic employees at work inspires co-workers and prompts them to discount their own petty gripes and differences.

"In the first placement I made, I was working in a really quantitative area where people were more interested in things than people," Dalziel says. "The addition of that (mentally retarded) person changed people's attitudes. I think it took the stress level down, and it just put things in perspective a little better."

Alexander, Aronson, Finning has two mentally retarded women, in addition to Keirns, on the payroll. "For these folks, this is the most important thing in their lives, and they give it their all," says Jill Priester, an executive assistant and their supervisor. Keirns, for example, takes two buses to Westboro and then walks two miles to the office every day.

Priester describes the women's work as "excellent" but says there are challenges for employee and employer alike. Keirns is easily distracted and upset and must be given "pep talks" occasionally to keep her on track. "We sometimes just give her time out and ask her to go outside and walk around the building and come back," Priester says.

Keirns acknowledges the difficulties. "Overstimulation (and) certain types of noises drive people with my condition crazy, especially high-pitched noises and unexpected noises," she says. "And if there's a franticness in the office, or tension associated with anger, that also makes me high-strung."

Priester says another woman, mentally retarded as a result of a blow to the head by a baseball bat when she was a child, has such a negative attitude that she can't be assigned to work with others. But she works well by herself, copying paper files to microfilm, and she has been employed at the firm for 11 years. When asked whether she would hire more people like these women, Priester answers without hesitation, "Absolutely."

Rethink Management Style

In addition to providing a specific accommodation such as flexible working hours, a different management style may be appropriate with some employees who have mental disabilities, says Richard Baron, a Philadelphia-based private consultant and an expert on the employment of people with psychiatric disabilities.

"They may need to be told a little more directly and a little more often what it is you want them to do and where their performance is falling short," he says.

Gavin Simpson says that when he discloses his autism during interviews, he always points out the benefits of his temperament. "I tell them the skills that autistics have are often manifested creatively," he says. "And one of the traits is we are hard-working, working on something very painstakingly until it's just right."

When asked what kind of work environment would be best for someone with a mental disability, he says, "An environment that's not overly hectic with a lot of deadlines, because autistics seem to have trouble with deadlines. Give them projects that allow them to explore and use their creativity and problem-solving (abilities)."

Wendel Simpson says his son, like many adults with autism, is a perfectionist with "laserlike" concentration and the ability to work on a problem for 16 hours at a stretch. Of those days on the playground long ago, Wendel says, "He was the first to be able to do a slam dunk -- because he practiced it all by himself, hour after hour -- and his days on the sidelines, autistic or not, were over."

The elder Simpson says he sees the basketball experience as a metaphor for his son's future in IT, but he doesn't sound like he really believes it.

"Gavin is a bright guy, and he sees people with less talent and ability -- but no 'differences' -- getting jobs, and he isn't," he says. "Those observations are beginning to depress him. I see the light going out in his eyes, and that hurts. It becomes harder and harder to say, 'Hang in there, Gavin. Your opportunity will come.' "

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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