Push vs. Pull
A White Paper on Employing
People with DisABILITIES

Rex A. Hoover & Angela M. Cook
August 7, 2001

Just over two decades ago, machines and appliances could only be operated through the use of knobs, levers and switches. If a person did not have the manual dexterity to turn the knobs, slide the levers or flip the switches, then he or she had to be content with whatever careers were left that did not require such capability. Since most tools of science had knobs, levers and switches, this meant there was no possibility for an aspiring scientist with restricted physical abilities to pursue their dreams.

Shortly thereafter the personal computer was introduced to the public and this limitation all but disappeared. Creative people designed electronics in such a way that a personal computer could be used as the interface in place of all the knobs, levers and switches. Incredibly, this technology has evolved to the point that a person on this planet can control a little robotic vehicle roaming the surface of Mars 50 million miles away. Today, if you can operate a personal computer, you can operate all kinds of equipment including many of the tools of science.

However, for persons with a significant mobility impairment to get access to technical careers appears even more difficult than operating the Mars Rover from planet earth. A 1998 survey, conducted by Louis Harris & Associates, found that of Americans aged 18 through 64, 29 percent of disabled persons were employed full or part time, compared with 79 percent of non-disabled persons. In 1986, 33 percent of the disabled population was employed. It appears that the promise of employment for people with disabilities offered by the Americans with Disabilities Act has not been fulfilled. One of the reasons for this lack of progress is that we have been trying to push people into jobs through legislation. Pushing a product into the marketplace has never worked and will not work with people either. If a manufacturer wants to sell a product, he must inspire a need or want for that product in the marketplace. The same could be said for finding employment for the disabled. To achieve this, the people responsible for hiring need to believe that people with disabilities add economic value to their workforce. Simply stated, we need to make employers want them. Then companies will reach out to people with disabilities and pull them into the workforce. Here is an example of what can be accomplished based on what has been done, albeit on a very small scale.

There is a tool that is used in nearly every scientific laboratory, hospital and institution of higher learning in this country. This tool has always required a great amount of manual dexterity to adjust six independent controls. The person responsible for using this tool must hold his or her head in an unnatural and rigid position for extended periods of time in order to peer into a pair of eyepieces and observe a sample. This device is a common optical microscope and the daunting set of requirements to use one has certainly thinned the ranks of those who could work at a job that required their use. However, the physical requirements of operating the microscope have nothing whatsoever to do with the actual work being performed, which is strictly analytical. Good visual skills and a scientifically trained mind are the only real necessities in order to excel at any career that requires a person to spend their day at a microscope.

Almost a decade ago, a microscope was introduced that was controlled via a computer and could be used by almost any person with a mobility deficit. A course was offered to teach people the skills needed in order to be efficient quality assurance inspectors of semiconductor wafers. The course, along with two of these computer-controlled microscopes were supplied under contract to a rehabilitation center in the fall of 1996. An instructor was hired by the rehabilitation center to train over a dozen people with varying amounts of mobility impairments, including quadriplegia. Upon completion of the course, a few of these trainees found jobs in high-tech careers, an enormous achievement! However, the lack of general support in the business community resulted in the discontinuation of the program. The operation was a success but the patient died!

Although the program was discontinued, it was not a failure. One very significant fact stands out; people with mobility impairments can have successful careers as microscopists, given the opportunity. A major reason for the short life span of this program is the current approach of trying to push people with disabilities into jobs. Although altruism is a noble gesture, it is not an incentive for most companies to hire the disabled. A legislative mandate is not enough of a motivator either, as has been proven by the lack of progress in getting people with disabilities employed. However, profit clearly is an appropriate incentive. Any successful business manager must consider the cost to train and employ a person and the revenue that employee would be likely to generate. In terms of a revenue to cost ratio; the higher the ratio, the higher the incentive. Therefore, if a company has the understanding that hiring a person with a disability will increase their expenses, largely due to the requirement to purchase assistive technology, then the ratio is not as favorable as hiring a person with no assistive technology requirements. Therefore, a person with a disability must bring more to the job than their non-disabled peers, which would in turn offset some of the additional costs of their employment. This does not represent a level playing field to the person with a disability who is competing for a meaningful position.

But should an employer be dissuaded by the additional cost of purchasing assistive technology for a person with a disability? There have been many technological advances in the last decade which have produced more "user-friendly" tools which can be operated by nearly any person no matter the state of their mobility. Many of the "assistive technology" devices once found in the market place have been rendered obsolete by these universally usable tools, which are often less costly than their predecessors. Therefore, the cost of assistive technology can often be ascribed to capital upgrades, which occur periodically despite any additional requirements of an employee.

Estimates from the National Health Interview Survey of 1992 suggest that almost 6 million people have impairments likely to prevent the use of standard microscopes. There are approximately a million employment positions in various industries that require a person to spend a significant amount of time at a microscope. There are currently millions of such people with disabilities who want challenging careers in a technical field. And they offer some advantages to their employers. Because of significant mobility impairments, they generally cannot easily relocate and therefore will have longer career life-spans, leading to a lower employment turn-over rate. And they usually come already trained which significantly reduces the cost of incorporating a new employee into the workplace.

It becomes apparent that not only is the technology now available to create job opportunities for people with disabilities, but it is also in the best interests of the company to hire them! Now the issue becomes getting the prospective employers to see them as an asset rather than a liability without spending yet another decade of taxpayer dollars debating the problem. That is the challenge facing this [Presidential] Task Force [on Employment of Adults with Disabilities]. It is a formidable one but it can be met with well informed people willing to go beyond today's conventional wisdom.

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