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Originally published Sunday, October 5, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Job Market

Disabled workers find playing field not level for them

Nearly 22 million Americans; 13 percent of the population; of working age have a disability. But they are only half as likely as others to be employed.

Newhouse News Service

What employers can and cannot ask

What an employer can ask a job applicant, disabled or not:

Based on the job description, are you able to perform the essential functions?

Can you demonstrate how you would perform the following job functions?

What is your attendance record?

Have you used drugs illegally?

Do you have a conviction record?

May I see your certifications and licenses?

What an employer can't ask:

Do you have any disabilities?

What is your medical history?

Have you had any recent illnesses or operations? List type and dates.

Have you ever been injured on the job?

Have you ever been treated for mental-health problems?

Do you have a heart condition?

Do you have asthma or any other difficulty breathing?

What prescriptions do you take?

Have you ever made a claim for workers' compensation?

May we have authorization to obtain your medical history?

Source: Disability Advocates of Kent County, Mich.

If you think the job market is tough, trying see it through Jon Bruski's eyes.

His 200 applications netted only three callbacks. One of the interviews was an obvious waste of time.

Bruski, who is hearing-impaired, is well-versed in reading body language. He recalled that the interviewer's lack of interest was evident: averted eyes, nervous nods and limp handshake.

"I wanted to show them that I'm a hard worker, that I can make their company look good if they are patient," said the 23-year-old Grand Rapids, Mich., man who reads lips.

That sentiment is shared by millions who, like Bruski, have a disability.

There is a dramatic employment gap between those with disabilities and those without, according to the annual Disability Status Report, prepared by researchers at Cornell University.

Nearly 22 million Americans — 13 percent of the population — of working age have a disability. But they are only half as likely as others to be employed.

The gap widens in income levels as well. The median annual income for a worker with a disability is $30,000, compared with $36,000 for those without, according to the study. That may be surprising, considering during the past four decades, the government has taken steps to level the playing field.

Federal laws aimed at helping those with disabilities integrate into the workplace have included the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA.

Still, companies' efforts to diversify their work force in other ways rarely extend to increasing the ranks of those with disabilities.

"I think part of the problem is perception," said Rick Diamond, director of employment services with the Disability Network in Holland, Mich.

Helping his clients land jobs often requires educating employers about myths. One is that hiring a person with a disability will increase workers' compensation costs and insurance rates.

Another myth claims they are absent often and are less productive. In fact, employees with disabilities tend to stay longer with a company, statistics show.

Diamond concedes he is much more successful helping clients keep their jobs than finding new ones. In one year, only five of 75 clients reached their goal.

"It's the economy," he said.

Interview hazards

There also are barriers that people with disabilities have to navigate. Take interviews.

Some applications and interviewers still ask improper questions, requesting information about a disability or medical histories.

What does an applicant do? Call them on it? Avoid the question? Lie?

It takes finesse, acknowledged Linda Joy Vazquez, who supervises employment services for Disability Advocates of Kent County, Mich.

"Answer to the intent of what the employer wants to know — [whether] you can do the job," Vazquez advised.

When it comes to health questions, companies can require a drug test before a job offer is extended, but a medical exam can be demanded only after a job is offered, Vazquez said.

She advises job seekers to be honest but not go overboard in offering information on their disability. The employer needs to keep questions focused on job performance.

When Bruski interviewed for a bindery operator's job with Integra Printing, a sign-language interpreter was present, thanks to Patti Hammond, the company's human-resources manager.

But halfway through the interview, Hammond asked the interpreter to stop working. She needed to see if Bruski could communicate with her and other employees.

The tryout worked. Bruski speaks clearly enough to be understood and reads lips well enough to comprehend.

"When we hired him on, he was so thrilled," Hammond said. "He couldn't thank me enough."

Confront the elephant

Employers need to talk about the elephant in the room, said Sheridan Walker, founder of HirePotential.com, a consulting and staffing firm for employees with disabilities.

"Recruiters get so distracted with the disability, they really don't interview," Walker said.

Her advice: Applicants should talk about their skills, work ethic and what adaptive tools can help them accomplish the job.

She places people in fields including information technology, administration, finance, engineering and customer service with wages ranging from $10 to $75 an hour.

While only 20 percent have evident disabilities — such as use of a wheelchair, hearing and visual impairments — she encourages everyone to be honest about their limitations. That's especially important if accommodations are needed.

Calvin College hired Christopher Smit to teach when he was finishing up his Ph.D at University of Iowa in media studies. Born with spinal muscular atrophy, Smit uses an electronic wheelchair to maneuver around campus.

The college spent more than $10,000 to provide him with remote controls that operate the elevators and doors on the campus, along with a voice-activated computer.

"At the end, I was hired not as a minority candidate — just as a viable addition to the staff," Smit said.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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