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People With Disabilities Achieve New Opportunities

The Americans with Disabilities Act makes it easier for people with disabilities to get jobs.
The Americans with Disabilities Act makes it easier for people with disabilities to get jobs.
From VOA Learning English, welcome to This Is America in Special English. I'm Kelly Jean Kelly.

And I'm Jim Tedder. Today we look at what's happening with employment, education and entertainment for people with disabilities.

A government report says more people with disabilities work as janitors or building cleaners than any other job. People with physical or mental disabilities are less likely to be employed than people without a disability. And those who are employed are more likely to work in lower paying jobs, and to earn less than their co-workers with no disability.

Meg Grigal works with an organization called Think College. That group helps colleges and universities provide courses, social opportunities and job training for people with mental disabilities. Many of the students have Down’s syndrome. Ms. Grigal says the students gain from higher education just like anyone else hoping to earn more in future employment by going to college.

“I think we are starting to be able to document the economic impact for people with intellectual disabilities that having them go to college even if it’s not for a degree is going to improve their employment outcome.”

Ms. Grigal says the most common reason students with intellectual disabilities do not go to college is because their teachers and parents do not think they can do it.

“You can only believe in what you have seen is possible. And if in your entire career or your entire child’s life, you’ve been told people with intellectual disabilities can’t go to college, then that is your knee-jerk reaction when you are broached with an opportunity.”

There is a campaign to encourage young people with mental disabilities to consider college. These students are part of that campaign.

“College is kind of like a challenge. You get to learn new things that you are not learning in high school.”

“The reason I am going to college is to get an education and for everybody to know who I am. I want my family to be proud I want my friends to be proud. I want to have a wonderful life.”

One opportunity is at Virginia Commonwealth University. Students with mental disabilities receive a special certificate after they take classes for 30 months at VCU. Liz Getzel is the director of postsecondary initiatives at the university.

“They are very independent. They move around campus like any other student. We do try very hard and have been successful in having all of our students work part time.”

She says VCU discovered one student who had no idea how artistic he was.

“He had never been exposed to that. He drew a self-portrait of himself that looked like a photograph. We are finding this more and more. This opens them up in terms of the amazing amount of talent they have.”

Talent to get a good job and be an active member of the community.

Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, known as the ADA, more than 20 years ago. The law made it easier for people with disabilities to get jobs and use public transportation and public buildings.

There are many success stories, but overall not very much has changed in the job market. Seventy percent of people with severe disabilities are still not working, about the same as 20 years ago.

The unemployment rate for people with a disability was 15 percent in 2011. This was well above the 8.7 percent unemployment rate for people without disabilities.

The Census Bureau reports that between 2008 and 2010, people without disabilities were about three times more likely to be employed than those with disabilities. People with disabilities represented 6 percent of the civilian labor force.

More than half of all workers with a disability work in four general occupation groups. These are service workers, administrative support, sales workers, and management, business and finance.

Marian Vessels is director of the Mid-Atlantic ADA Center, which provides training and assistance to employers and employees. She says one big problem is that neither employers nor employees with disabilities feel comfortable talking about a disability.

“There is still a stigma about employment and the perception that you might not be able to be a good employee if you have to have an accommodation or a modification to the way the work is done, so many people are hesitant to admit they have a disability.”

Ms. Vessels says people with disabilities need to speak up. They need to believe in themselves to get a job and the accommodations they need to do the job well.

An accommodation is an action taken by an employer to help people with a disability do a job. For example, maybe you need a wider office space so your wheelchair fits next to your desk. Maybe you need to use your voice instead of the keyboard to type on a computer.

Mark Barlet has no feeling in one of his legs because of an accident. He asked that all the computer cords under his desk be placed away from his legs so his computer would not get pulled off the desk. Mr. Barlet says people with disabilities sometimes have to work harder and better to get and keep a job.

“If you are bringing a skill set to the table that an employer needs and very few other people can satisfy that, then you are in a much better position to make sure you get what you need to be functional.”

Mr. Barlet became a specialist in making computer software accessible to people with disabilities. He has even started the AbleGamers Foundation to make video games easier to use.

Jay Schiller lost an arm and a leg in a train accident when he was a boy. Now he has what is known as a myloelectric hand that he operates electronically. He works in a laboratory as a chemist for the Merck company.

“What is good about chemistry is that you have to be deliberate in your actions in the lab and plan what you want to do because you are working with dangerous substances at times. That suited me perfectly in that I really needed to think about how I wanted to do things with my new situation.”

Mr. Schiller says employers must understand that people with a disability bring a special point of view and can be valuable employees.

“Global diversity is not just a nice thing to have anymore. Companies realize it’s a competitive advantage.”

An organization called Mobility International USA is working to make it easier for people with disabilities to study, travel and work in other countries. Cerise Ross-Vinson is the chief operating officer of MIUSA, which helps answer questions for those who want to travel.

“OK, what kind of medication do you need and how many months' supply can you take with you? So we talk about the pre-planning, but some degree it comes down to a sense of adventure and what I call 'challenge by choice,' which is how challenging or how up for adventure are you?”

MIUSA has several programs to help students with disabilities in other countries come to study in the United States. But Ms. Ross-Vinson says their biggest problem is at home.

“There isn’t as much opportunity to learn English if you are a disabled person in many countries, so if they are not learning English or going to university, the opportunity to study in the U.S. or even qualify for programs and scholarships is limited.”

There is much work to be done, she says, and some of it is being done by women who attend the MIUSA WILD program. WILD is Women's Institute on Leadership and Disability.

This summer, for the seventh year, 30 women with disabilities will come to the state of Oregon from developing countries. They will attend four weeks of leadership training. Some of the women who attended in the past have become government ministers, members of parliament, lawyers, doctors and activists for people with disabilities.

We have talked about work and school. What about play?

Imagination Stage is a children’s theater in the state of Maryland. A special performance of each play is produced for children with autism.

People with autism have difficulty communicating and socializing with other people. Children in the theater are allowed to move around during the performance. It’s OK if they shout out or hold their ears when the music is too loud. These special performances are sometimes the only way a family can go to the theater together if a child has autism.

That is the same idea with Autism on the Seas. This company organizes vacations for families of children with autism – especially vacations on cruise ships. Jamie Grover is director of group development for Autism on the Seas.

“The advantage most of these families experience is having our staff on board and having the comfort factor knowing that they are going to be able to relax, enjoy their vacation, participate in ship activities know thing their children are well taken care of. The added benefit is not waiting in huge lines on departure day, having staff to help in the ports where the ship visits.”

Waiting in long lines or being in the middle of big crowds can cause problem behavior in children with autism. Autism on the Seas helps families avoid situations like that.

Autism on the Seas works with the help of cruise companies like Royal Caribbean. Special times or places are arranged for families to play video games, go skating or rock climbing, or eat dinner. Autism on the Seas also directs families to organizations that can help them pay for these vacations.

Bambi Van Woert from the state of Michigan went on a cruise with her 7-year-old, Ben, who has autism.

“I would never do something like this myself. I cannot take Ben grocery shopping by myself at this point, so for me to try to do a cruise without help would be absurd.”
She says after the first few days, Ben became comfortable with the cruise and the experience was good for him.

You can find more information about opportunities and assistance for people with disabilities at

Our program was written by Karen Leggett and produced by Kelly Jean Kelly. I’m Jim Tedder.

And I'm Kelly Jean Kelly. Join us against next week for This Is America in VOA Special English.

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