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Weak job market compounds woes for disabled workers

Max Rosenthal of Port Washington studies some of

Max Rosenthal of Port Washington studies some of the pieces he created as an employee of the Lego Store at Roosevelt Field in Garden City on Nov. 19, 2014. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

The local job market has always presented obstacles for Long Islanders with physical and mental disabilities. Now, in a challenging market, those roadblocks loom larger.

The unemployment rate has yet to bounce back to prerecession levels. Nationally, the percentage of people participating in the workforce (a statistic not covered locally) also hasn't recovered. That overall weakness compounds the employment market woes for people with physical and mental disabilities, experts said.

In New York State, an estimated 21.1 percent of workers with cognitive disabilities, such as autism, Down syndrome and traumatic brain injury, were employed in 2012, up slightly from 21 percent in 2011, but substantially below the 26 percent in 2007, before the recession began, according to reports from the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts/Boston.

Nationally, the percentage of people with mental and physical disabilities in the labor force relative to their overall population has largely declined since 2008, when the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics began compiling the data. That participation rate stood at 19.7 percent in November, up slightly from 19.6 percent a year ago, and down from 23.1 percent in 2008.

On Long Island, experts said, people with disabilities face a struggle to find work.

Leaner companies, a hallmark of the recovery, require their employees to take on a variety of duties, making it harder for people with disabilities to compete.

"Because of the uncertainty of the economy as it rebounds, they're not looking to staff up with people that may not be able to perform a wide variety of jobs," said John D. Kemp, president and chief executive of the Albertson-based Viscardi Center, a network of nonprofits that provides services to children and adults with disabilities.

And technology has replaced some basic office jobs, such as filing or document shredding, that once provided many opportunities for people with disabilities, said Bonnie Holtzman, supervisor of Employment Services Long Island, part of the Manhattan-based YAI Network, a group of nonprofits that provide services to people with developmental disabilities.

"Technology has taken over some jobs that were really good for our individuals," Holtzman said.

That jobs picture becomes bleaker when you factor in the discrimination that workers with disabilities face from employers, their advocates said.

"In many respects they are only comfortable with people who look like them, act like them and do jobs like them," said Kemp, who was born without arms and legs and uses prosthetic limbs. "Able-bodied people will hire able-bodied people."

State and federal laws prohibit discrimination against workers with disabilities. They require companies to provide "reasonable accommodations" to job applicants and employees, unless doing so would cause the business a hardship.

The Suffolk County Human Rights Commission received 29 allegations of employment disability discrimination in 2013, up from 21 the year before. In Nassau, the number of allegations fell to 13, from 15.

Experts are relying on a variety of strategies to boost employment among their clients with disabilities, which include people with developmental and physical disabilities such as autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy.

Developing relationships

Holtzman, who joined YAI four years ago, believes it's paramount for agencies that serve this population to develop relationships with a variety of businesses through internships and volunteer work. The group recently expanded its volunteer program to pet care at a local shelter.

"We're not asking you to hire," Holtzman said she tells employers. "We're just asking you to give us a chance to come in and build our skills."

In the last six months, three people have joined companies where they interned, she said.

The employers "get to see that these individuals can actually do the job and some of them do it better than other people they have on staff," she said.

Several years ago YAI partnered with a Melville software company to boost the agency's chances of finding jobs for its clients there. That company, eVero Corp., which provides software and tech services to health and human-services organizations, including YAI, employs four people with developmental disabilities. Two are from YAI.

Computer skills class

That partnership has evolved over the years to include a 10-week computer-skills class that two of the eVero employees with disabilities teach to other people with disabilities.

"Some of these people are very high functioning, and they can offer a lot," said Constantine Morris, eVero's president.

One of the instructors is Ronald Torres, 24, who trained at YAI. eVero hired him in July as an office assistant whose work includes receiving packages and doing data entry.

"I like what I am doing," said Torres, of Central Islip. "I feel comfortable in an area that I feel appreciated."

In the past few years, the Viscardi Center has developed training programs to mirror real work situations. About five years ago, Gap Inc. and other retailers helped the center set up its This & That clothing boutique, where trainees put price and size tags on merchandise, wait on customers and operate a cash register. It's open to the public.

"We really try to make it as hands-on as possible so they can go right into the workforce," spokeswoman Kim Brussell said.

Max Rosenthal, 19, graduated from the retail program in March after about six months. In August, the Roosevelt Field mall Lego store hired the Port Washington resident and Lego enthusiast, who works about 20 hours a week. The outgoing Rosenthal greets customers, helps them pick out age-appropriate sets and builds some displays for the store. He recently assembled more than 700 pieces depicting a scene from the latest Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie.

"The Lego store is my dream job," he said. "It makes me feel happy."

The job, he said, "makes me feel more confident. It gives me working experience."

The Viscardi Center's efforts to boost employment among people with disabilities will be helped along by the nearly $2 million in funding it won from the U.S. Labor Department as the organization to lead the online National Employer Policy, Research and Technical Assistance Center for the next year. The website provides technical support to help employers recruit, hire, retain and promote workers with disabilities.

Kemp said he wants the site to shift its focus away from a theoretical and academic approach and toward centralized research "connecting the dots from the practical issues that employers are facing to the solutions they need."

That information is sorely needed because many local executives are unaware of resources such as state tax credits for hiring people with disabilities, said Christos Morris, chief executive at eVero and Constantine Morris' brother.

"There are things that employers don't know exist," he said.

Companies in New York State can earn as much as $5,000 in tax credits for hiring individuals with developmental disabilities. And the state Office for People With Developmental Disabilities also provides funds for job coaches to help new hires acclimate to a job.

That office last month awarded businesses its annual "Works for Me" designation for hiring people with disabilities. They included King Kullen's Bellmore store, for hiring a cashier with disabilities, and the YAI's The Corporate Source, for employing a maintenance worker with disabilities as part of a contract to clean the county court in Mineola.

A greater awareness among employers would challenge their assumptions that it's too expensive to hire people with disabilities, said Professor Brian Freedman, director of transition and employment programs at the University of Delaware's Center for Disabilities Studies.

In fact, he said, the resources "they need to be successful in their jobs are either no-cost or low-cost."

Initially, eVero employees were uneasy about making eye contact with their co-workers with disabilities because they didn't know what to expect, Constantine Morris said. That changed over time.

"They became a little bit more compassionate," he said.

Kemp of the Viscardi Center wants to help employers "see a broader span of human abilities" in applicants with the right skills.

"We have kids that type with their toes," he said. "Does it matter how they do the job, or what the outcome of the job is?"

But it's a tough sell.

"I know they can do the job," Holtzman of YAI said. "I just have to convince the person on the other side of the table they can."


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