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Recession Squeezes Disabled Workers Out Of Jobs


The unemployment rate has been edging down, and is now at its lowest level in two years. But for people with disabilities, the trend is moving in the other direction.

Charles Lane, of member station WSHU, explains.

CHARLES LANE: Boxes. Lisa Hinch is standing in front of lots and lots of boxes.

Ms. LISA HINCH: I'm just so happy that I'm here for 12 years, almost 13. August 10th of 2011, I'll be here 13 years.

LANE: Hinch is developmentally disabled. She lives in a group homeand has a limited range of skills, but she's good at folding boxes. Without looking, her hands make a dozen origami-like folds a minute. She is a shipping clerk at ClearVision Optical, an eyeglasses distributor on Long Island in New York.

What Hinch's warehouse manager likes about her most is her steadfast focus, her hands always going - even while I rattle off wonky economic stats at her.

Here's the funny thing: It's getting better for people without disabilities.

Ms. HINCH: Right.

LANE: But for people with disabilities, there's actually - it's harder and harder for them to find jobs right now.

Ms. HINCH: Right.

LANE: The unemployment rate is at 15.6 percent for people with disabilities. And it just gets, you know, higher and higher every year.

HINCH: Yeah, well, not for me because I work every day. I'm so happy I still have my job.

LANE: Hinch is lucky. She is one of ClearVision's three warehouse employees with disabilities. They have what are called carved jobs, where their company sets aside a collection of tasks well within their ability.

What ClearVision did was took all the manual, repetitive tasks from other employees, like folding boxes, and gave them to Hinch and the others. According to Marie Myer, this freed up the others for the more complex tasks that Hinch would've struggled with. But there's a but.

Ms. MARIE MYER (Job Coach, Association for the Help of Retarded Children): Basically because of the economy.

LANE: Myer is a job coach for the AHRC, the Association for the Help of Retarded Children. She finds jobs for people with disabilities, which often means persuading employers that carving out jobs can increase efficiency.

Recently, though, that persuasion has gotten a lot harder because companies looking to trim the fat want to consolidate jobs.

Ms. MYER: Where before, they might hire somebody who could just do maintenance, now they need somebody who can open the store, go on the register, and do the maintenance. And that's one person.

Dr. STEVE KAYE (Disability Statistic Center, University of California San Francisco): The recession may have brought about deeper concerns among employers who now have fewer workers. And they may feel that they want workers who can do anything.

LANE: Steve Kaye is with the Disability Statistic Center at the University of California at San Francisco. Earlier this year, he did a survey of businesses that didn't hire people with disabilities for open positions.

Dr. KAYE: Whether or not workers with disabilities can fill that role is an open question, but employers apparently believe that they can't.

LANE: Kaye says their decisions were based mostly on three things: the fear of litigation if they have to fire the person, the cost of installing special accommodations, and also the discomfort over how they would quote, deal with workers with disabilities.

Another difficult obstacle is lower productivity. That's a question I put to Bob Lamay, Lisa Hinch's supervisor at ClearVision.

As a manager, why wouldn't you just have somebody who doesn't have a disability? Wouldn't it be easier for you, then?

Mr. BOB LAMAY (ClearVision): It would be easier, but I think we want to help the community. That's like - they're an asset to the company, and we think so.

LANE: So despite this small productivity loss, ClearVision plans to keep Lisa Hinch - who all this while, has been folding boxes.

For NPR News, I'm Charles Lane.

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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Charles is senior reporter focusing on special projects. He has won numerous awards including an IRE award, three SPJ Public Service Awards, a National Murrow, and he was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists.