Living With a Disability in America - and Trying to Earn a Living

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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Faith Lapidus. Last month we began a series of reports on living with a disability in America. We started with education. Today, in Part Two, we look at employment.


To go to work, you need a way to get there. Around the nation's capital, many people take subway trains to their jobs.

Federal law says public transportation systems in the United States must be accessible. What does that mean? It means that trains, buses and planes must be designed for use by people with physical disabilities.

In Washington's Metrorail system, for example, lights go on and off as a signal to those who cannot hear a train arriving. Raised bumps on the ground serve as a warning to those who cannot see they are close to the edge of the platform.

And there are elevators in the station, so people in wheelchairs have a way to get from one level to another.

But in transit systems, like anyplace else, life is not always easy. Things like broken elevators, or no elevator at all, only create more barriers for the disabled.


Accessible public transportation is just one of the requirements of a nineteen ninety law called the Americans with Disabilities Act. This major law, known as the A.D.A., also affects the design of public buildings. And it affects employment.

Under the law, employers have to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities.

The United States has three hundred million people. Estimates differ about the number of them living with disabilities. One commonly repeated estimate is that forty-nine million people are disabled.

A physical or mental disability can be measured in terms of how much it affects a person's quality of life. Yet even people with severe disabilities can lead successful lives in many different kinds of jobs.

In the November elections, New York and Maryland both had legally blind candidates for lieutenant governor, their second highest office.

David Paterson, a state senator in New York until now, was successful in his campaign. Kristen Cox was not.  She became Maryland's first secretary of disabilities when that cabinet-level position was created in two thousand four.

Marco Midon is an engineer with NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. He has been blind since birth, but has always loved sounds. He now uses his understanding of radios in his work at the space agency.

Max Cleland was severely wounded as a soldier in the war in Vietnam. He lost both legs and his right arm. He later served as head of the government agency responsible for services to military veterans. In recent years he served a term as a United States senator from Georgia.

Many people with disabilities have jobs. But as many as sixty percent do not. Many of them have to receive public assistance or depend on their families to support them.

Marian Vessels directs an office in Rockville, Maryland, that provides information to employers and to people with disabilities.  She works hard to help these people get the assistance they need to find and keep a job. She points out that the Americans With Disabilities Act has its limits.

MARIAN VESSELS: "What it's designed to do is level the playing field, it's designed to guarantee basic civil rights for people so that it allows you to compete with everyone else for the job."

Marian Vessels says that some employers still do not understand that people with disabilities can often do many different tasks. She talks to employers about changes or other measures that could make it possible for a person with a disability to do a job. She explains to employers that many accommodations do not cost a lot, but they give a person a chance to work.

Marian Vessels herself requires an accommodation. She needs enough room in her office to move around easily in her wheelchair.

In another job, she taught health classes to firefighters. Her employer let her teach the class at the back of a fire truck. The back of the truck was a perfect table for her while she sat in her wheelchair. Her employer did not have to buy anything or change anything. He just had to understand that she needed to use a different space to teach her classes.


People with disabilities can go to court if they think an employer is denying them fair treatment.

A group of deaf employees at United Parcel Service wanted the right to take a truck driving test that the company would not let them take. A federal appeals court ruled in October that U.P.S. was violating the Americans With Disabilities Act. The court said the company could not refuse to let a group of people take the test just because they are deaf.

The ruling said U.P.S. must consider each candidate's personal ability to drive a truck. U.P.S., however, says there could be safety problems with drivers who are deaf. The company is continuing to appeal the case.

But to people with disabilities, even courts may seem unfair sometimes.

Several university professors recently did a study. They said it was the first study to compare protections under the A.D.A. law for people with either mental or physical disabilities.

The researchers found that thirty-seven percent of people with mental disabilities won their court cases. The same was true of forty-nine percent of people with physical disabilities. The researchers said people with mental disabilities believed they were treated less fairly by the courts than people with physical conditions.

But most people do not want to have to go to court at all -- they just want a job.

There are many organizations in the United States that try to help people with disabilities find and keep jobs. A program called Emerging Leaders provides summer jobs to college students with disabilities. These students receive training to become leaders in many kinds of work.

The United States Chamber of Commerce has a program for employers to help people with mental disabilities. Employers are told that many of them are very hard workers who want to do a good job.

Since nineteen seventy-nine, Purdue University in the state of Indiana has had a program called Breaking New Ground. The goal is to help people who have been disabled by injuries to return to work in agricultural production. Even people with severe disabilities, it says, can return to work with training, assistive technology and family support.


There are also special programs to help young people with disabilities to find jobs as scientists, engineers and mathematicians.

A chemist named John Gavin became deaf as an adult. He worked for several drug manufacturers. Later, Mr. Gavin looked for ways to help people with disabilities get more chances to work in science. Too often, he said, there is a mistaken belief that people with disabilities are not intelligent even if their disability affects them only physically.

In the nineteen seventies, the American Association for the Advancement of Science had a special program just for women and minorities. The purpose was to encourage more of them to become scientists and engineers. Mr. Gavin urged the association to include people with disabilities.

The association now has such a program for young people, called Entry Point. The association also keeps a list of public speakers who are available to discuss their experiences as scientists and engineers with disabilities.

The federal government has programs to help Americans with disabilities find jobs. In October, the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission announced a plan to urge the government to hire more people with severe disabilities.

People with disabilities will also be able to borrow money from the government to buy equipment that will help them work from home. This type of equipment is often called assistive technology.

Sometimes a person with a disability may be successful with the aid of technology. But Marian Vessels, the employment specialist in Maryland, says there is no substitute for hard work.

MARIAN VESSELS: "And, there were times I'd go home and think, 'I can't do this. I can't possibly do this.' And then I'd think no, I have to do this. How can I do it?"

And believing you can do a job is not enough either, she says. You also have to make an employer believe it.


Our program was written by Karen Leggett and produced by Caty Weaver. Next month, in Part Three of our series on living with a disability in America, the subject will be assistive technology. Our first report, on education, can be found at I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Faith Lapidus. We hope you can join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.