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Integrate for the Future
Disability Awareness Program Advises:
'Cure Attitudes, Accommodate Disabilities'

By Carla Garnett

On the Front Page...

There are lots of excuses not to hire people with disabilities, but not any valid reasons. So said the keynote speaker at NIH's 14th annual Disability Awareness Program held recently. The speaker, Paul Meyer, deputy executive director of the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities who has been personally involved in hiring more than 1,000 people with disabilities throughout his career, then proceeded to debunk several major myths about jobs and ability.


Paul Meyer

"Basically the theme has got to be accommodation and integration [of people with disabilities], not curing them," remarked Meyer, who has worked for more than 20 years in the field of equal employment opportunity and disability hiring. Society has to identify and correct its faulty perceptions about hiring people with disabilities, he said.

It's not about "helping those who can't help themselves," he continued. "Most people have been living with their disabilities for years and are quite capable of handling jobs." Contrary to what many employers believe, it doesn't have to be expensive to accommodate a person who uses a wheelchair. In fact, Meyer said, there is now a 24-hour, toll-free hotline employers can call to find out about the necessary accommodations for hiring someone with a specific disability. The hotline -- called the Job Accommodation Network -- answers an average of 60,000 calls a year.

Taking on another popular misconception, he refuted the practice of steering kids with disabilities away from pursuing science as a career. His committee's "High School-High Tech" initiative helps young students develop their interests in science, mathematics and computer technology so they don't have to automatically accept jobs in low-skilled, low-paying areas.

In addition, he said his organization is addressing cultural diversity in hiring. "What we've found is that if you've got a disability, your chances of getting a job are slim," he explained. "If you've got a disability and you're African American or Hispanic, your chances for employment are even slimmer."

Meyer urged the use of internship programs to help integrate people with disabilities into careers. He explained that employing people in an intern capacity offers four key advantages: It allows workers and employers to try out the situation for a while before a permanent commitment is made, it gives interns on-the-job training and experience to add to their resumés, it gives people a chance to support themselves financially, and above all, it educates coworkers and supervisors.

Meyer concluded by describing the 21-year-old Workforce Recruitment Program (WRP) for College Students with Disabilities, which links qualified college interns to employers seeking summer workers to fill in for vacationing employees or needing extra workers for labor-intensive projects. WRP gives participating agencies access to a database of more than 1,100 prescreened, highly motivated students from more than 160 colleges and universities around the nation. Last year, WRP placed 221 students in jobs in the federal and private sectors.

"I challenge NIH to get involved with this program," Meyer said. "This is the way to get qualified scientists and engineers who are looking for jobs."

Tony Itteilag

According to the Office of Equal Opportunity, NIH currently employs 708 workers who have identified themselves as disabled. Roughly 160 of them have severe disabilities. Speaking on behalf of NIH administration, Tony Itteilag, NIH deputy director for management, said, "NIH can take great pride as a leader in employing people with disabilities," he said. "This is due in large part to a high degree of commitment expressed by the ICDs. This is hard work for everyone involved, harder for those in the trenches, but NIH intends to do better in this area. We need to identify appropriate positions, make sure the job openings become known, and obtain the appropriate referrals for filling the jobs. Once we are successful, we must support those individuals so they become an integral part of the NIH community."

Motivational speaker Bill Demby, a veteran who lost both legs in the Vietnam War, holds up an early generation model of the prosthetic foot that allowed him to return to one of his passions -- playing pick-up basketball. He told the audience he represents "the new minority on the block...Things that help us move through society are going to help you, eventually."

Motivational speaker Bill Demby added a personal perspective to the employment discussion. A Vietnam veteran who lost both legs in the war, he is probably more familiar to most as the in-the-lane, in-your-face basketball player who snaps on his artificial limbs for a rigorous pick-up game in the DuPont plastics TV commercials. He came to NIH to deliver a bulletin:

"We're the new minority on the block, folks," he said with infectious humor, referring to people with disabilities. "A curb to you is like a mountain to us. Things that help us move through society are going to help you, eventually. Everybody's going to get old someday, and the body's not going to work the same way."

Pacing gracefully back and forth in front of Wilson Hall, the Maryland-Eastern Shore native and former high school basketball star told of his first attempts at job-hunting after a Viet Cong B40 rocket blew up the truck he was driving, instantly destroying both his legs and his dream of one day shooting hoops for a living. Demby said after months of rehabilitation, what seemed like forever in his wheelchair, and a fruitless, frustrating job search, he had learned to use his prosthetic limbs nearly without limp or detection. He felt pretty confident about himself during his next job interview, so confident in fact that he did not let on that he was a double amputee. He was offered the position, too, until, feeling guilty, he admitted to the employer that he had a disability.

"I did not get the job," he recalled quietly. That experience taught him something, though. He said it showed him there were folks besides people with disabilities who needed rehabilitation -- not physical, but attitudinal rehab.

"We want to share this world with you," he concluded. "There are 49 million of us, and the number is growing. All we're looking for is an opportunity. It's time to put away those little things that stop us from helping people."

The Fabulous Flying Fingers, a 5th grade singing and signing chorus from Barnsley Elementary School, performed "I Can Fly."
Photos: Ernie Branson

The Fabulous Flying Fingers, a 5th grade singing and signing chorus from Lucy Barnsley Elementary School, provided the musical highlight of the program, which was cosponsored by several ICDs. A demonstration of work accommodation technology concluded the program.

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