Fred Lee had a hard time holding a job ten years ago when bipolar disorder took over his life. It wasn't long before he was collecting disability as the extreme mood swings that characterize the illness kept him out of the workforce.
As he slowly began to recover with medications, he found that he wanted to work again.
"There's some shame on being on welfare and not being able to take care of yourself, so working can be a very positive feeling," Lee reflects.
He is now an assistant resident manager at a homeless recovery program and a part-time advisor at a mental-health consumer nonprofit group.
"When you work, you can walk around the world and feel like you're a part of it and not feel isolated," Lee grins.
Whether reentering the job market after a long absence, or starting to look for work for the first time, there are many hurdles for those with disabilities. But the hurdles are not impossible to overcome.
"It's daunting for a lot of people to think about applying for a job when they're going to ask 'what have you been doing for the last ten years?'" Lee confesses.
The loose definition of a person with a disability is someone whose life is in some way physically or mentally limited.
"Most of us at some point in our lives, whether it be permanent or temporary, will probably have some kind of disability," contends Erin Treadwell, public information officer at California's Department of Rehabilitation in Sacramento.
The biggest problem is snap judgments by employers when they believe that people with disabilities can't perform certain jobs, Treadwell believes. "They say, 'this person is blind, how can they possibly work on computers? Or this person is deaf, how can they possibly perform customer service at a bank?'"
Employers often don't take into account or may not be aware of new technologies or software that allows people with disabilities to work, Treadwell asserts. The Department of Rehabilitation not only helps the disabled enter the workforce, but assists employers in accommodating them.
The Department of Rehabilitation, through its Work-Force Solutions program, assists several of California's largest companies to help integrate people with disabilities back into the workforce. Tax breaks for companies hiring these individuals are available as well. The department also helps employers keep workers who have recently become disabled on the job.
Most of the disabled want to work, Treadwell says. The Department of Rehabilitation now has about 74,000 disabled workers going through its job training.
With the economic downturn, jobs are more scarce and competition is tougher. But the department can provide training, education and transportation.
"People with disabilities are a very valuable resource pool, and our department can help to match an employer's needs with someone to fill that position," Treadwell notes. "Services are out there and are available."
Gladys Lewis, employee service manager at the Westside Center for Independent Living in Los Angeles, says the disabled staffers she works with are generally considered excellent workers. They are loyal, diligent and have excellent on-time records.
Computer training can be particularly effective. "Many people with physical handicaps are sitting at home spending hours and hours on the computer, so it's very comfortable for them." The Westside Center has trained and placed four visually disabled students in computer-related jobs.
Lee recommends that those with disabilities should volunteer, as he does a few hours a week at his church thrift store. "Some of my skills are in retail and I'm able to put that to use and be valuable and be productive without worrying about the money part of it," Lee explains. Meanwhile, the work enhances his resume.
No More 'Cash Cliff'
There's a widespread misconception that disability payments and the healthcare safety net will disappear if you start to work. Those days are gone. New laws implemented in the last four years have changed what was once called the "cash cliff," where if you started to make money, you lost your right to public assistance.
"If you worked at all, they would cut you off, so a lot of people were terrified of working," Lee recalls. Continuing to receive some disability payments is essential as he gradually recovers from his illness and adds more responsibility to his life.
The word on the new laws has not reached everyone, he believes, and there are still many who fear the financial consequences if they do any kind of work. "It's kind of spooky when you have a disability and you think they're going to pull the rug out from under you. It makes you not want to venture out."
"Some of that has been closed up, so it makes it more enticing for people with disabilities who were scared to try to go to work," Treadwell hopes.
Lewis cautions against trying to jump into the job market before you're ready. There are sometimes health issues, benefits issues, transportation problems and mental challenges to consider. The first step is wanting to work.
"It's important that it has to be the disabled person's decision," Lewis insists. "No one can decide for you. You have to really want it."
Those who are ready can seek out the nearest Department of Rehabilitation office. To do so, go to dor.ca.gov, or check the government section of your phone book. The website is fully compatible for all disabilities.
Businesses interested in hiring disabled workers can email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (916) 263-7310.
For more information on dealing with disabilities, check these sources
- DisabilityResources.org - Disability Resources, Inc is a nonprofit organization established to promote and improve awareness, availability and accessibility of information to help people with disabilities live, learn, love, work and play independently. Click on "States" then "California" for links to other websites. Phone/Fax: (631) 585-0290.
- disweb.org - California Disability Alliance is a statewide grassroots organization consisting of persons with disabilities and their supporters. The organization's membership has a broad agenda for promoting the health, independence and full community inclusion of those with disabilities. The site features breaking news on current legislation, and links to other websites.
- pacdbtac.org - Pacific Disability and Business Technical Assistance Center's (Pacific DBTAC) mission is to build a partnership between the disability and business communities and to promote full and unrestricted participation in society for persons with disabilities through education and technical assistance. The site has local and national news pertaining to those with disabilities, and links to other resources. (800) 949-4232 (Voice and TDD).
- DisabledPersons.com - Their job search section, Recruitability, includes a large jobs database, resume posting, job search advice and information on legal and workplace issues for those with disabilities. Employers can post jobs for free.