The U.S. Department of Labor is pushing employers to hire more disabled workers, who face an unemployment rate nearly twice that of the national average.
About eight in 10 working-age Americans with disabilities do not hold a job. And of those who are actively looking, about 13 percent remain unemployed compared with 7 percent of the broader work force.
But a proposal before Congress would encourage contractors who do federal work to set a goal of employing more people with cognitive or physical disabilities.
Some people in South Jersey think the goal of 7 percent is reasonable, coming almost a generation after the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990.
Chris Devaney, an occupational therapist from Ocean City, runs a program called It’s About Community through the state Division of Developmental Disabilities. It offers farming work to disabled residents in South Jersey.
“If employers understood the disability better, they’d be more inclined to hire them. There are plenty of jobs out there for them,” he said. “I hold off on saying it’s a disability. They just have a challenge. Everyone has his own challenges. For me, I’m a procrastinator.”
Devaney said New Jersey’s public schools could do a better job helping recent disabled graduates get their first jobs. He often deals with parents who are ill-equipped to help their grown children make that first connection to the working world.
“Mainly, the biggest problem is the transition to the work world,” he said.
Matt Hoover has been looking for a new job for almost a year. Hoover, 20, of Dennis Township, was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, which is related to autism.
“When I was younger, I wasn’t very social. I was very shy and kind of an introvert,” he said.
But now he said he does much better in social situations.
After graduating from Middle Township High School in 2011, he applied to supermarkets, computer stores and fast-food restaurants. He went to a couple of job interviews, including one at an electronics store where he thought his interest in computers would be helpful, but things didn’t go as well as he’d hoped, he said.
“I wasn’t recommended for the job,” he said. “They didn’t say why.”
Graduating during an economic downturn didn’t help.
“It’s quite frustrating. I believe some disabled people have given up,” he said. “There have been times when I wanted to give up.”
His dream job is to design video games, he said. Until he finds it, he and other workers in Devaney’s program have been spending the fall rebuilding a barn at a Dennis Township farm while he continues his job hunt.
Disabled workers sometimes face a wall of discrimination and misunderstanding, said Meg O’Connell, vice president of the National Organization on Disability.
By law, job applicants are not obligated to disclose a disability. Sometimes, the handicap is not readily apparent.
“A majority of people with disabilities are people with invisible disabilities — people with MS (multiple sclerosis) or epilepsy or bipolar disorder who don’t have to disclose their disability,” she said.
“There still tends to be a lack of awareness about what people with disabilities can do … in the work force,” she said. “At one time there was a question in the work force: Can women do the same work as men? We’re still at that question with people with disabilities.”
Disabled workers in more suburban parts of the country, such as southern New Jersey, can have even more difficulty finding employment than in larger cities.
“Transportation is one area we see constantly as an issue with people with disabilities,” she said. “We find employment levels are higher for people with disabilities in more urban environments.”
O’Connell said that in many cases, the question employers should ask is not whether a disabled worker makes a good fit, but simply how they could fit.
“The expectations you have around a particular job and performance expectations for that job should be the same for everybody,” she said. “It’s the how that might be different. How they achieve that performance standard.”
Getting a job out of high school or college is encouraging and provides a more promising alternative to dependence on Social Security disability benefits, she said.
“Getting a paycheck is addictive. We want to start that addiction early,” she said.
Several national companies have set policies to provide a more inclusive workplace, including Bank of America, Home Depot and Walgreens.
Walgreen Co., of Deerfield, Ill., in 2009 set a goal to recruit more workers with disabilities. About 10 percent of its work force in its 21 distribution centers has disclosed a cognitive or physical disability, spokeswoman Vivika Panagiotakakos said.
“There may be more people with disabilities. These numbers are only those who feel comfortable sharing that,” she said. “There is more of a push to attract people with disabilities to our work force, first through our distribution centers.”
By offering jobs to disabled workers and recruiting through vocational rehabilitation agencies, the company has created a positive-feedback loop to attract more disabled candidates, she said.
“You might think it’s charitable, but it really makes good business sense,” she said. “Employee turnover was less with people with disabilities at our Anderson (S.C.) distribution center. You get the sense there is that motivation and determination to go to your job. They’re very loyal and aware of the rules.”
At least half of the employees at the Anderson center has disclosed a disability, Panagiotakakos said.
The company also launched a Retail Employees with Disabilities Initiative to employ disabled workers as store service clerks.
“We talked to some folks who have worked in other retail settings and they might have been stuck in the back stocking shelves,” she said. “The service-clerk position is very customer-service heavy. They’re working the cash registers and talking to customers.”
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