Like so many aspiring chefs, Betty-Jo Wilt started off humbly in the restaurant business - by scrubbing pots.
Five days a week, she gets up at 5:30 a.m., takes two trains to the Citizens Bank processing center in Medford, Mass., and dons her white jacket and hat at the employee cafeteria.
In her relationship with her bosses, she places a high premium on honesty.
"I won't lie to them, and they won't lie to me, so it's cool. They treat me like the normal person I want to feel like," says Ms. Wilt, who has a mild form of mental retardation.
A few years ago, Wilt participated in a pilot school-to-career program through Triangle Inc., a nonprofit agency in the bordering town of Malden. Triangle provides services to about 600 disabled people each year, always emphasizing its motto, "People with Ability." The curriculum for the six students in the Citizens Bank program included everything from servicing ATM machines to dressing appropriately for work, and Wilt was one of two graduates hired full time by the bank.
Senior executives at Citizens Bank have been so happy with the results that they hope to establish similar partnerships along the East Coast. And that level of commitment, generated by managers who have firsthand experience with disabled employees, is what's needed to break down barriers between employers and the disabled, advocates and business leaders say.
More than a decade since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) established employers' obligations to treat disabled people fairly, progress remains slow. In the United States, 22 million people ages 16 to 74 have a work disability, the Census Bureau reports. Only 21 percent of them are employed, compared with 72 percent of people with no work disability.
Not everyone wants to work or feels capable of it, but 67 percent of unemployed disabled people say they'd prefer to have jobs, according to Work Trends, a study published this spring by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Of those who are working, 40 percent say the jobs don't require them to fully use their abilities.
On the employer side, 26 percent of companies employ at least one person with a disability. Only 11 percent use advertising and recruiting methods specifically targeting these applicants.
But a nexus of government agencies, nonprofits, and leading-edge employers are innovating to close the gap. In October, National Disability Employment Awareness Month, they will be particularly busy spreading the message that companies' efforts to welcome and accommodate employees with disabilities are rewarded by the skills and loyalty these employees bring to the job.
"It's good business to hire people with disabilities ... and more leading companies realize that and are reaching out," says Roy Grizzard, an assistant secretary in the Department of Labor who's in charge of the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) in Washington.
Employers sometimes worry that making adjustments for a disabled worker will be costly, but businesses surveyed by ODEP say that 69 percent of their accommodations cost less than $500; only 3 percent exceed $5,000. A saw operator with a learning disability, for instance, simply needed a $5 card that explained how to measure fractions of an inch. And a lab researcher who couldn't bend his neck fully after an injury was able to adapt his microscope for $2,400. The companies reported a $29 return for every $1 spent on accommodations.
SunTrust Bank Mid-Atlantic has worked hard in the past few years to earn its reputation as a disability-friendly employer, says vice president Katherine McCary, director of its Accessing Community Talent program. The Richmond, Va., bank recruits through vocational-rehabilitation agencies. It encourages the temporary staffing firm, Manpower, to send people with disabilities to the bank as temps, some of whom have bridged into permanent employment. The company also recently asked a local university to develop a disability-awareness Web course to train supervisors and other employees.
"More people are coming to us for employment that we don't think would have come to us five years ago," Ms. McCary says. "For some people [with disabilities] it can be pretty daunting to come to a large employer, so the more we go out and talk in the community, the more people say, 'Yes, I could envision myself working at a bank.' "
McCary is also chairwoman of the national Business Leadership Network, a coalition of employers who see hiring people with disabilities as an important part of their diversity goals and business strategies. She sees strong momentum among companies of all sizes, partly because, with high turnover and job vacancies in certain industries, "they're looking for any concept they haven't tried before."
Others say it's not time to celebrate yet.
"We've not seen the kind of progress we'd like in the area of recruiting," says Edmund Cortez, president and CEO of the National Center for Disability Services in Albertson, N.Y. "A few years ago when there were complaints about a future shortage of workers, there should have been a surge of employers coming to our [disability-employment] organizations ... but there wasn't.
"One company was using [prison] inmates to produce their product, and I wondered, why haven't they come to us? It's ignorance.... They just didn't know about the well-trained people available."
That ignorance persists partly because extending civil rights to people with disabilities was a sort of "afterthought" to the activism of the 1960s, Mr. Cortez says.
In 1973, the Rehabilitation Act prohibited discrimination against people with disabilities in workplaces that received federal funding. But it wasn't until the employment-nondiscrimination portion of the ADA went into effect in 1992 that the message went out to all employers.
And interpretations of the law are still being sorted out. "If the employer and the worker can work out a solution, that's the best," Cortez says.
If not, the courts continue to give the law teeth. This summer, hearing- impaired employees settled a class action lawsuit against UPS for nearly $10 million. It is thought to be the largest monetary settlement for an employment-discrimination claim under the ADA, says Caroline Jacobs, a lawyer for the UPS employees from Disability Rights Advocates in Oakland, Calif.
The plaintiffs claimed they were not given written materials or sign-language interpreters during important training sessions, and that in some cases they were discouraged from seeking promotions. UPS did not admit to any discrimination in the settlement, but a mechanism is being set up to monitor policies it put in place after the lawsuit was filed. These are intended to improve what the company considers a strong record in recruiting and accommodating employees with disabilities.
The dispute over promotion opportunities speaks to the challenges that can remain in workplaces even after basic adjustments are made.
"Accommodation is the easy part ... and we see people with disabilities out in public life and work life more than ever before, but attitudes are still a problem - the low expectations of people with disabilities," says Patricia Murphy, director of the Disabilities Studies Program at the University of Toledo in Ohio.
Pity and condescension means "we don't think of them as workers, as someone who may compete with us for a job," she says.
The barrier is not always on the employer side. People who depend on government benefits for medical expenses, for instance, might find themselves disqualified once they were employed, even if their income didn't cover medical needs. Others are held back by transportation difficulties or family members who discourage them from working.
For many of the people referred to Triangle, the first step is recognizing their own talents, says CEO Michael Rodrigues. Triangle earns 90 percent of its funding by employing people in its gift-product and packaging ventures and by contracting with local businesses for various services. It also offers computer training, sports, and social activities. People greet each other in the hall as members of an extended family.
Some may stay with Triangle for years, while others just spend a few months there. Last year, the agency placed 70 people in full-time jobs in the community.
Employers benefit from Triangle staff's eagerness to follow up with support if someone needs it after starting a job.
"I want to know that once the employee is placed, they're not forgotten," says Marc Berube, the human-resources manager at Citizens who hired Wilt for the cafeteria job.
Wilt spends many of her hours washing dishes, but she says she especially likes "to cook and give food to people and have a little conversation." Eventually she wants to own a restaurant where she can cook "fancy dishes."
Before partnering with Triangle for the school-to-career program, Mr. Berube didn't know how rewarding it would be. Now he's a convert.
"There are some great skilled people out there," he says. "We just need to attract and retain them."
IBM recently bid against a competitor to hire a top-notch software engineer. He happens to be blind, but what mattered to recruiters was that "this guy was unbelievably smart and talented," says Jim Sinocchi, IBM's director of diversity communications, "and we got him."
Companies don't want to have to bid up salaries to draw talent, but Mr. Sinocchi hopes to hear more such stories echoing through corporate America. "From the perspective of a disabled person, it's great to be wanted and recognized for what you can offer," he says in a phone interview from his office in Armonk, N.Y.
Sinocchi began working for IBM in the 1970s, as a young man armed with a master's degree and "ready to take on the world." Five years later, he broke his neck while surfing. He had to face the profound task of adjusting to total paralysis.
At first he struggled with basic questions about his worth and "relearned how to look people in the eye." His employer made a huge difference by simply asking him to come back to work - for as many hours as he could handle.
Once Sinocchi got comfortable with the day-to-day tasks of his job, he says, "I started thinking: How can I make other people comfortable with me so that I can get my work done? People were coming into the office and didn't know they were going to see a guy in a wheelchair. My heart went out to them. I had to convince them I was an expert. I decided I'd start telling people what was wrong with me and that they couldn't catch it - making them comfortable right away."
Over the decades, Sinocchi hasn't seen much improvement in the way he's treated in public - people still stare, and some waiters automatically ask his companions what he'd like to eat. But he proudly recounts his own company's record of hiring people with disabilities, one that stretches as far back as 1914.
IBM pairs with the American Association for the Advancement of Science to bring in summer interns with disabilities. They must have college grade-point averages of at least 3.5 in math or computer science. Since 1997, 30 of the 150 interns have been hired. Another recruiting program, Project Able, has led to 200 hires since 1999.
Of the roughly 2 percent of IBM employees with known disabilities, 47 percent work in "core jobs" such as software engineering, sales, and information-technology support.
When hiring, managers aren't supposed to ask about the existence or severity of a disability, but they can assess a person's ability to perform job functions.
They are taught not to assume it would be too onerous for people with physical disabilities to travel for work. Sinocchi, for instance, travels with assistants, and that's paid for by IBM. "We've told managers: This person has some challenges, [and] this is how you overcome them."
Now Sinocchi looks forward to seeing the glass ceiling broken. "The biggest challenge for people with disabilities is ... convincing people that they can be a leader."