RUSSELL Bourgoin does not let blindness get in his way. He commutes 60 miles to work each day, plays in a bluegrass band, and writes computer programs for New England Telephone. Mr. Bourgoin is one of many handicapped people being drawn into the work force thanks to sophisticated new technology and employers' needs for skilled workers.
``There are 3 million new jobs created every year, but only 1.5 million young people coming out of schools,'' says Frank Bowe, a consultant on disability policy and author of several books on the handicapped. ``So for half of those new jobs, employers are looking for anyone they can find, including retired people and the handicapped.''
Dr. Bowe quickly points out that the disabled are still fighting an uphill battle to get into the workplace. In fact, in terms of unemployment and poverty, their situation has grown worse in the last 15 years. But handicapped workers may be on the threshold of entering the white-collar job market in big numbers. True, the technology is still expensive, and many companies are unaware of the possibilities. But in five years, says Bowe, the impact will be ``astounding.''
``Nobody will care if you're blind or deaf, because the technology will do what the disability prevents,'' says Bowe, who is himself deaf.
Already, voice synthesizers can read information on a computer screen, allowing the visually impaired to work on a computer or helping the speech impaired to talk. Optical reading machines can vocalize text, giving the blind access to information not written in Braille. Using a ``voice recognition'' device that understands oral commands, a person who can't type on a keyboard can operate a computer, and someone can communicate with a deaf person over the telephone.
The most active recruiters of the handicapped have been office technology companies, such as IBM, AT&T, New England Telephone, and Digital Equipment Corporation. Many of these make the equipment and don't hesitate to use it. Beyond that, the skills of, say, a computer programmer or a service representative who works via telephone adapt easily to computer technology.
Mr. Bourgoin at New England Telephone, for example, can listen to his computer at about 350 words a minute, 100 words faster than the average college graduate can read. His colleagues say he's one of the department's faster programmers and is often given work that needs to be done on short notice.
Computer programming is especially suitable for someone with impaired vision, he says: ``You have to read Pascal [a programming language] line by line anyways. It's not like reading Huck Finn.''
But this kind of equipment isn't cheap (see related story). The machines on Bourgoin's desk cost about $12,000. Few individuals can afford to buy their own equipment and bring it to the office, since computer devices aren't covered under medicare or medicaid. Individuals can apply for the government to buy the equipment, through either the Veterans Administration or their state rehabilitation services agencies.
Cost often deters companies from hiring a handicapped person. Bowe estimates it costs about $10,000 to accommodate a blind worker doing a white-collar job when you add in items like a speech synthesizer or Braille printer. It will be more for a deaf employee -- about $15,000 -- when voice-recognition devices are fully developed in five years, he says.
At present, companies can take a $3,000 tax credit in the first year of the disabled worker's wages and $1,500 in the second year. But the targeted-jobs tax credit, which is the only major tax incentive for actively recruiting the disabled, is due to expire at the end of the year.
Other economic trends, however, are going in the disabled workers' favor. First, there's the tight market for skilled labor. And second, there are disability payments.
Say an employee becomes disabled. The company must weigh the cost of the equipment he or she now needs against the long-term disability payments. As the work force ages, says John Vaughan, who advises companies on what equipment they need to hire disabled workers, the number of disabled employees increases. ``It makes good economic sense to accommodate workers rather than paying workers compensation,'' he says.
This is causing a lot of companies to rehabilitate employees who have become disabled, says Mr. Vaughan, who is one of two counselors at the Job Accommodation Network (JAN). The group, which is sponsored by the President's Council on Employment of the Handicapped and 11 major corporations, advises employers about what type of devices they will need to assist a disabled employee. Born only in January 1984, JAN now fields about 160 calls a month, Vaughan says.
Still, the disabled have a long way to go. The unemployment rate among the estimated 15 million disabled people of working age (16 to 64 years old) is 62 percent, according to the Labor Department. That's up from 55.8 percent in 1978. The poverty situation has worsened, too: Some 70 percent of families whose heads of household are disabled have incomes below $10,000, vs. 60 percent in 1975, when $10,000 had a lot more buying power.
The cost to society is $300 billion a year, about 11/2 times the federal deficit, says Evan Kemp, executive director of Disability Rights Center, a Ralph Nader group. The Labor Department estimates that each of the 10 million unemployed disabled costs the country $25,000 to $35,000 in lost wages, lost growth in gross national product, food stamps, and medical payments, as well as worker's compensation and unemployment insurance.
There are other hurdles to overcome before the disabled become fully integrated into the work force. ``Why work 50 weeks a year for [an additional] $2,000 when you could sleep late every morning?'' says Edward Nowak, coordinator of Prosthetic Field Operations at the Veterans Administration. ``Disability payments can almost be counterproductive to rehabilitation.''
The Reagan administration is tackling the problem via private enterprise. Under the Project With Industry (PWI) program, the government works with companies to set up projects to train and place disabled workers. The government funds 80 percent of the bill.
IBM, for example, has set up 31 training sites where disabled workers can learn computer programming. It then places the workers in jobs, usually with local companies. More than 1,500 people have graduated from the training program since 1972 and over 80 percent of these land jobs right away, says Carl Brown, manager of product initiatives for the disabled person at IBM.
PWI is now funding 98 projects, worth some $14.4 million, through the states' rehabilitation centers. Funding will probably stay at that level next year, says Arthur Cox, program officer at PWI. Moreover, the federal government is not the only game in town: A recent study indicates that state agencies are funding more than 200 Projects With Industry on their own.
The US does allow a company to deduct up to $35,000 for installing equipment like wheelchair ramps (this is also due to expire Dec. 31). But other countries are far more active in integrating them, Kemp says. He cites the West Germans, who have a quota system in hiring, and the British, who give tax credits and not just deductions for installing special accommodations.
Most say that the main stumbling block is not government funding or technology, but attitude. ``The technology is there,'' says Kemp. ``It all depends on whether society decides to use it.''
First of two parts. Next: Technology for the handicapped student.