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Work, MS & the ADA: where do you fit in?

Jim Barry was diagnosed with MS in 1978. A marketing specialist who lives in Westchester County, N.Y., he was forced to leave two jobs because of vision problems and was unable to make a go of a business he had started on his own.

"During this period I never revealed to employers that I had any disorder. But I finally came to grips with the fact that my MS wasn't going away. And I was convinced that I still had good marketable skills to offer an employer," he calls.

He approached NYNEX, a "baby Bell" telephone company in 1985. He was upfront about his MS and his vision disability, and the firm came through with flying colors: Barry was provided with a Xerox Kurzwell personal reader (that scans writing and speaks the text), a large-screen monitor and a computer with a vice synthesizer that accepts spoken commands.

Mr. Barry might be called a lucky forerunner in a workplace scenario that could become standard practice now that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is set to go into effect next year.

Unlike its predecessor, the Rehabilitation Act o 1973, this law bans employment discrimination for the disabled not only in firms that receive federal funds, but also in many elements of private industry. Nearly two million businesses will be affected by Title I of ADA beginning July 26, 1992.

Basically, ADA prohibits employers from refusing employment to people because of disabilities if they are able to perform "essential functions" of their job. Moreover, they are required to go a step further and help such employees with special accommodations such as altered scheduling, lowered or relocated desks, ramps, rails, etc.--if those accommodations do not present an undue hardship to the employer. Additionally, people with disabilities who experience workplace discrimination can seek back pay, reinstatement and attorney's fees.

What does this law mean to people with MS?

Studies of people with disabilities who are unemployed indicate that more than two-thirds want to work. A 1991 Society-sponsored Brandeis University study indicates that 75% of people who have MS do not hold full-time jobs. In simple language ADA gives thousands of such people, heretofore excluded, an improved legally backed chance to compete in the labor market.

At the same time, however, ADA places a responsibility on these people to understand the law and to develop for themselves the skills and techniques to use the law effectively.

"We have to remember that ADA is a two-way street," says Jim Barry. "It is not a free lunch for employees," he emphasizes. "We have to demonstrate our own worth regardless of our disabilities. I know I was given thousands of dollars worth of equipment, but I don't mean to get up the hopes of other workers with MS too much. We have to realize that what are reasonable accommodations for a large company may not be so for a small firm. The word that keeps jumping out at me is 'qualify.' It's both a right and an obligations under ADA."

What can the ADA mean to the nation's economy?

Says Nancy Law, program development manager for NMSS Chapter and Community Services, "from a very practical viewpoint, employing people with disabilities who want to and are able to work can transform government-support recipients into active income producers, saving billions of dollars a year." Ms. Law reiterates that a number of disabled people who are now unemployed wish to work and have skills which, for a comparatively small investment in training and assistance, could lead to competitive employment.

What can the law mean to employers? It can mean the addition to an employer's work force of a pool of skilled, productive people--a resource that can become available, often with surprisingly little inconvenience or financial upheaval.

"I would estimate that I was given roughly $15,000 worth of accommodations by NYNEX to help me do my work," Barry says, "but more often than not workplace accommodations can be made without financial hardship for the employers."

One social worker, for instance, whose job required extensive written documentation, merely asked her employer for the use of a dictating machine when tremors in her hands made writing difficult. Her request was granted and a secretary typed the notes from voice tape rather than from hand-written notes.

Marian Butler, who used to work for the US Postal Service, reports, "I had been a small sorter and was required to lift heavy mail trays every few minutes. After I told my employers about my MS, I was transferred to "light duty" that was similar but didn't require lifting. Because of my bladder problem. I was permitted extra break time and my work station was moved closer to the restroom." Today Ms. Butler works three days a week as a telephone counselor at the Chicago-Northern Illinois chapter, requiring as accommodation only a magnifier and notes written in bold letters.

Larry Burd is senior vice president for manufacturing at Kreonite, a small Wichita photographic and graphics firm with about 200 employees. He says his company has installed Braille for timeclocks and other functions of the workplace, and high-powered magnification for video screens displaying electronic schematic diagrams.

"But even more simply, there was a case in which we bought a battery-powered screwdriver for a woman employee who had hand coordination problems. It worked so well that our non-disabled employees wanted them too, and now everyone works with battery-powered screwdrivers."

A recent study by the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), a national information clearing house for employers seeking help and equipment for disabled employees, found that most accommodations do not cost businesses thousands of dollars. It was found that 31 percent of the accommodations made by employers cost nothing; 19 percent cost less than $50, and 19 percent cost between $50 and $500.

Holly, Delcambre, manager for disability issues for US West Communications, 14-state region, says, "We have been known to spend as much as $30,000 or $50,000 for accommodations, but most cost less than $500. We have adapted computers for the visually impaired, provided several chairs and cushions and raised desks," she says.

Employers are also eligible for tax credits when they make changes in the workplace for disabled employees. The amount of the credit is 50 percent of eligible expenditures over $250, but less than $10,250. (A tax consultant can provide more details for interested employers.)

"But sometimes it's not even the money," says Suzanne Murpharee of Marion, Arkansas. "It's understanding enough about the situation to do very little things that make a big difference." She points out that she has been able to continue her work at a bank because her employer and her fellow workers understood her balance problems and took the time to lend a helping hand (literally) when it was needed.

"We teach all our employers to be as flexible as possible in working with individuals who have disabilities," said Ms. Delcambre. She explains that US West, one of the baby Bell telephone companies formed when the Bell System was disbanded, has a number of extra-curricular groups that meet outside of company hours. One of them, called Friends, is made up of workers with disabilities. Members meet to discuss common concerns, needs and misconceptions held in the workplace.

Some of the more common myths about people with disabilities in the workplace, along with the facts that set the record straight, appeared in the August 1987 issue of the Training and Development Journal:

1. They have higher turnover. WRONG. Disabled workers have lower absenteeism and one-fifth the turnover rate of non-disabled workers.

2. They are less productive. WRONG. Two-thirds of disabled workers match the productivity of non-disabled co-workers, and nearly a quarter have better records. Only 10 percent have poorer performance records.

3. They pose a greater safety risk. WRONG. Ninety-eight percent have similar or better records than non-disabled workers.

4. They are too costly. WRONG. Most accommodations for disabled workers are not costly. And for a person with MS, such accommodations as schedule changes or an office closer to the restroom cost nothing.

5. They would be an embarrassment to the company. WRONG. Firms such as McDonalds which actively seek to hire and train disabled employees have usually found public reaction to be favorable.

The NMSS is committed to implementing the ADA. Opening doors to the work force for people with MS has become a major program thrust, with Nancy Law coordinating the effort. "The National Board of Directors has pledged support for 12 principles that will promote and protect employment of people with MS," she says. "Society-wide programs to support these principles will be launched in 1992. They will include national, state and local advocacy, education for people with MS and employers about ADA, attitudinal training for employers and affirmative employment action within our own organization."

Work is already in progress in many local chapters. In the National Capital Chapter (Washington, DC), for instance, Operation Job Match (OJM), which has been in existence for about 11 years, will continue to help people with MS learn to go out and look for a job and help employers recognize the value of employing the so-called disabled.

"Our long range goals will not change with the passage of the ADA," says Marilynne Tilson, community resource coordinator for OJM. "I think, though, that the first and most important step to take now is to begin an educational program about ADA and not simply to regard it as a vehicle for litigation. I know that there are horror stories out here, but I don't think litigation should be a primary aim. Rights and responsibilities are more what we are into," says Ms. Tilson who is herself a 26-year MS veteran.

In many other Society chapters, JOB RAISING has been an ongoing, important employment program. Managed nationally by the Development Team, Inc. (TDTI), JOB RAISING has experienced above 60 percent success in helping more than 2400 people with MS (including Jim Barry and Marian Butler) to obtain or retain employment.

"We will be collaborating with the Society in new initiatives as part of the Society's employment emphasis," says Harry L. Hall, TDTI president. "Within the chapters, JOB RAISING will focus on improving the abilities of people with MS to understand and effectively use ADA and other laws. Participants will develop skills in asking for accommodations, will consider whether and how to disclose and will practice techniques to prevent discrimination from occurring. These are in addition to the basic job readiness and job seeking skills that help people with MS compete fairly for jobs they can do."

"I think we've finally got something really good going for us," concludes Jim Barry. "But it's the job of each and every one of us with MS to make the most of it."
COPYRIGHT 1991 National Multiple Sclerosis Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related information; Americans with Disabilities Act
Author:Frames, Robin
Publication:Inside MS
Date:Sep 22, 1991
Words:1794
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