The Disability Diaries: Disability a Disadvantage in Job Hunt

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA. While the law has had many benefits, people with disabilities still tend to suffer economically. As a group, they have the highest unemployment rate in the country. KUHF Health, Science, and Technology Reporter Carrie Feibel explores that problem today as part of her week-long series on disability and society.
Winston Lewis has an impressive resume. He has a Ph.D. and has worked in four states and his native Guyana.

“I have over the years obtained more than $3 million in grant writing and grant proposals.”

But Lewis has been looking for work for five years. He thinks employers are hesitant to hire him because he has diabetes. He moves slowly and can’t stand up for more than 30 minutes. The ADA forbids discrimination, but Lewis feels companies do it anyway.

“No employer is going to say, tell you to your face… what happens when you go looking for job is that ‘We’ll be in touch with you.’”


Because of his nerve-damaged feet, Lewis can’t drive either. That makes the job hunt that much harder. He could drive if he installed hand controls, but he can’t afford to do that until he gets a job.

Employment experts say that those problems are typical. Workers with disabilities often can’t afford the tools they need to get out into the world and prove their competence. And despite the ADA, employers still have fears and prejudices when it comes to hiring. Ray Cebula works for Cornell University’s Employment and Disability Institute.

“There’s a pretty general fear of how much accommodations will cost. It may be equipment; it may be a little bit of time off here and there, but it’s usually less than $500 per disabled employee. And I think there’s just a general fear of difference that exists. There’s still that ‘Oh my god, what do I do in this situation? You know, how is this person going to fit into the workforce?’”

Vickey McGaskey
McGaskey celebrates with Dan Glenn, her vocational counselor from the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services.

Cebula says workers with disabilities are very loyal and they stay on the job longer than their able-bodied counterparts. And yet, they are employed at half the rate of other working-age adults. The unfortunate outcome is that adults with disabilities are three times as likely to live in poverty.

“I just really want to get out of that rut of being stuck at home and doing nothing.”

Vickey McGaskey is on disability benefits right now, but her goal is to get back to work. She’s worked all her life, most recently as a teacher’s aide in Houston schools. But three years ago, after leaving an abusive relationship, she suffered panic attacks so paralyzing that she could not function.

“I couldn’t get out of my door. I would get up and get dressed every day, but I could not walk out of my door. It was just like the world was going to attack me again.”

McGaskey did get better through therapy, medication and counseling with the state Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative services. And three weeks ago, she graduated from a Walgreens retail training program.

(sounds of clapping).

McGaskey celebrated with a slice of cake.

“All of this is going to work together to where I can be phased off of the Social Security and be back independent, so that’s my plan. Even at this age, I’ve got 10 years left in me. Even at this age I want to phase off of this.”

Vickey McGaskey
Vickey McGaskey celebrates completion of a Walgreens training course. She hopes the course will help her land a job and get off of disability benefits.

If she gets hired, McGaskey will have beaten the odds. Studies show that once people start receiving disability benefits, they rarely go back to work. Many people fear that if they take a job, they’ll instantly lose Medicaid, their only source of health coverage. But Cebula says that’s an outdated worry.

“There is a very gradual ramping down of benefits as those benefits are replaced with income and employer healthcare. So the transition can be made gracefully, but the urban myths out there still prevail.”

Winston Lewis, for his part, wants desperately to get off benefits. He likes to work, and it’s also a matter of pride.

“I want to make it clear that I don’t want handouts. I want to be a productive member, a useful, productive member of society.”

In fact, Lewis spent 14 weeks training to become a disaster volunteer. But he is still looking for a job.
 
Carrie Feibel KUHF News.
Bio photo of Carrie Feibel

Carrie Feibel

Health & Science Reporter

Carrie Feibel is KUHF's health and science reporter. She comes to Houston Public Radio after ten years as a print reporter...