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Employment Barriers Remain for People with Disabilities

Lisa Ryan, WBOI News

Getting a job can be difficult. It can be even harder if a person has a disability. In fact, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is about double the rate of people without them.

In the back room of Goodwill, there’s one aisle that’s a little wider than the rest. It’s a modification for Lee Arnold, a Goodwill employee who is in a wheelchair. His desk is also higher, and he has tools to help him grab items that are out of his reach. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires these “reasonable accommodations.” By law, those accommodations must be made as long as the employee can do the essential job requirements. 

John Guingrich, director of programs for the League for the Blind and Disabled, says such changes are generally easy and inexpensive. 

“There’s some uncertainty for employers as to, you know, what can I accommodate and how do I accommodate that and how much is that going to cost my business?” Guingrich said. “The truth is the average job accommodation ends up costing around $500.” 

According to the most recent data, about 65 percent of Hoosiers who are disabled aren’t working. That’s compared to about 22 percent of non-disabled Hoosiers who aren’t working.  

Arnold worked in construction until he was injured in a work accident. He says the job search in Fort Wayne was difficult after he was paralyzed. 

“I would go in, I would be qualified for the job, but all they would see is the wheelchair, and you could tell by the look on their face that, you know, you’re just wasting your time,” Arnold said. 

The ADA does not require an employer to hire a person with a disability. Illegal discrimination occurs when someone less qualified for the position is hired over a better qualified person with a disability. 

"I would go in, I would be qualified for the job, but all they would see is the wheelchair, and you could tell by the look on their face that, you know, you're just wasting your time," Arnold said.

But this discrimination—sometimes as subtle as a look, in Arnold’s case—can be hard to prove. As long as an equally qualified person is hired, the employer did not break the law. 

But sometimes a disability is not as noticeable as Lee Arnold's wheelchair. And not all modifications are physical accommodations. 

Ellie Labis is protected under the ADA for her developmental disability. She works at Meijer, which has made accommodations for her. 

“I did, in the beginning, have difficulty cashiering, because I’m not really good with money or numbers,” Labis said. “It’s a little difficult when you have to give cash back.” 

She says she was promoted to produce, where she doesn’t have to work with money. 

But transportation is an issue for the 25-year-old. Labis has to rely on her mom to take her to work because she can’t drive. Her mother, Jan, applied for Ellie to receive special services from Fort Wayne’s public transportation, but says her application was denied. 

“I would not have put her on public transportation alone. She looks like she’s 12, you know? Would not have been a safe thing,” Jan Labis said. 

Still, John Guingrich of The League says the situation has improved since the Americans with Disabilities Act. Guingrich was born with shorter arms and underdeveloped hands. He also wears a prosthetic leg. 

When the ADA was signed, Guingrich was in college running a summer youth camp. But when he applied for a job at a different camp, he didn’t get it … even though he met all of the qualifications. 

“I found out a year later the reason I didn’t get hired was because of my disability,” Guingrich said. “That camp director from that camp that didn’t hire me came to my co-director at the camp that I was helping to run and said, ‘Oh well we didn’t hire John because we didn’t think the kids would accept his disability.’” 

Despite this setback, Guingrich says his personal story is a success story. After all, he now works for an organization that advocates for the rights of people with disabilities, helping them find jobs and obtain workplace accommodations. 

Even 25 years after the ADA was signed, advocates continue to want more. Guingrich acknowledges that not all people who are disabled can work. But for those who want to work but can’t find a job, the fight to break down employment barriers continues.

This story is part of WBOI's series, "One in Five," examining what's changed--and what hasn't--25 years after the ADA became law.

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