BOSTON — A LAW passed in 1990 to help Americans with disabilities may actually be keeping them jobless.
Since Congress passed the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 to ban discrimination against people with disabilities, the number who are working has declined slightly.
According to a recent survey by Vocational Econometrics Inc., a research firm in Louisville, Ky., the percentage of men with disabilities who are working dropped from about 34 percent in 1991 to 30.2 percent in 1993. By comparison, the employment rate among men without disabilities increased from 81.2 percent in 1991 to 82 percent in 1993.
``The act has only been implemented for a short period of time, and what we may be seeing is a short-term effect,'' says Anthony Gamboa, author of the survey. But ``it is clear that the [ADA] has done nothing to reverse a 15-year trend of decreasing employment for males with disability.''
But advocacy groups and experts in the field contend that the law, in and of itself, was never intended to reverse the 68 percent unemployment rate of people with disabilities. The ADA is a civil rights law - analogous to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 - that gives the 49 million Americans with disabilities the right to work. And advocates say that is a boon to people with disabilities. But as the civil rights and women's movements have shown, progress can be slow. Many say it will take 10 to 20 years before they see substantial changes.
``Most of America still harbors incredible ignorance, myth, fear, and superstition towards those of us with disabilities,'' says Rick Douglas, executive director of the President's Committee on Employment of People With Disabilities (PCEPD) in Washington. ``How many years did it take for a segment of the business community to remove its ignorance, fear, superstition, and myths about the female worker?''
Experts point to other barriers keeping people with disabilities jobless:
* Corporations fear litigation if they hire workers with disabilities.
* Employers perceive high costs to accommodate workers with disabilities. (Under ADA, employers must provide ``reasonable accommodation'' for such workers.)
* Health insurance companies usually won't provide coverage for those with pre-existing conditions.
``The ADA is like unlocking a door. The door has got to be unlocked before you can go through it. But other things are also needed ... in order to push it open,'' says Susan Daniels, associate commissioner for disability at the Social Security Administration.
``[Employers] perceive themselves as possibly having to go to extraordinary means in terms of accommodating persons with a disability,'' Mr. Gamboa says.
Yet studies show that about 80 percent of accommodation costs average less than $500, according to the Job Accommodations Network (JAN), an ADA corporate hotline sponsored by the PCEPD. A survey for Chicago-based Sears, Roebuck and Co., found that of the 436 accomodations the retailer made between 1978 and 1992, the average cost was $121; and 69 percent cost nothing at all.
Advocates say it's costly not to hire able workers with disabilities. ``To ignore somebody just because they have a disability, you wonder what technology and business have missed over the passed 20 to 50 years,'' says Pat Wright of the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund.
Take Carolina Fine Snacks in Greensboro, N.C. The snackmaker won a claim to fame making pork skins for the GOP convention when George Bush ran for election. ``With or without the [ADA], hiring people with disabilities saved our company,'' says co-owner Phil Kosak.
Of the company's 20 employees, more than half have disabilities. Before it hired its first disabled worker in 1986, the company had an 80 percent turnover rate and 20 percent plus absenteeism, Mr. Kosak says. Today, he says, absenteeism is virtually gone and turnover bottomed out to 5 percent. Worker productivity rose sharply.
Kosak contends that litigation remains an issue for many companies because they don't have the resources to protect themselves. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says 39,927 charges were filed between July 1992 (when the employment phase of the ADA went into effect) and December 1994. Of those, half were discharged. The remaining claims resulted in $40.3 million in settlement fees.
But Kosak says: ``The spirit of the ADA [is to] put everybody on an equal playing field whenever possible ... [then] if it doesn't work, it doesn't work.''
But the experts say adequate health-care coverage is the key to getting more people with disabilities to work. ``If you fix the health-care problem ... you would see an increase in those people with disabilities in the work force,'' Ms. Wright says.
It costs $200 billion a year in public and private payments to keep disabled Americans in dependence, according to the Dole Foundation in Washington.
Consider James ``Ty'' Cavaleri, a quadriplegic. Mr. Cavaleri works for food processor Land O'Lakes Inc., in Minneapolis as a communications distributor. He earns $9.45 an hour. When he became paralyzed in 1986, he qualified for Social Security Disability Income (SSDI), one of the two programs the federal government runs for people with disabilities. Under SSDI, he received a monthly stipend and health-care insurance through Medicare, which covered his $25,000 per year personal-care-attendant costs.
But if Cavaleri returned to work, after a nine-month grace period, he would lose his cash benefits as well as his Medicare coverage. For six years he didn't work until he says he was ``about ready to pull the trigger.'' He found a job at Land O'Lakes 2-1/2 years ago. Because Land O'Lakes is self-insured, it made personal-care coverage part of its employee health-care plan. Most employers cannot afford to do this, the company says. Cavaleri currently pays 20 percent of his health-care costs (a $300 deductible and a maximum $1,500 out-of-pocket expenses). The rest is covered under the company's plan. Still, Cavaleri says he had to take out a $2,000 loan to cover the out-of-pocket deductible.
Nearly 8 million people with disabilities are Social Security beneficiaries, costing $56 billion in 1994. Less than 0.5 percent of these leave the rolls to go to work.