By MARIAN ACCARDI
Times Business Writer
Robert Harms has to use a cane to walk around. If he stands for any length of time, his legs get numb. Those are the effects of Lou Gehrig's disease on Harms.
Forty-year-old Harms still gets to work at 7 in the morning. He operates a machine that spits out fittings for PVC parts, then he packs the components in boxes, which he seals and labels. To move around, he uses a sturdy, oversized chair on wheels made of black iron plumbing pipe, built for him by his supervisor at Available Plastics, Mike Gardner.
When Harms, a 10-year employee at Available Plastics, was diagnosed in 1993 with Lou Gehrig's disease, also called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, he realized he could draw from programs such as Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income. But he wanted to keep working and stay motivated. "If you don't keep moving, your muscles will tighten up," he said as he checked, trimmed and sorted the bright-red parts.
Harms may not be the typical story for the progress of people with disabilities
in the U.S. work force.
A recent study shows that strong economic growth during the 1990s didn't mean higher rates of employment or rapid income gains for the nearly 10 percent of the working-age population with disabilities in this country.
The research used data from the annual Current Population Survey, a survey of a nationally representative sample of more than 50,000 U.S. households that asked detailed questions about employment and sources of income. The study was performed by Richard V. Burkhauser, a professor in Cornell's Department of Policy Analysis and Management; Andrew J. Houtenville, a research associate in the Department of Industrial Labor; and Mary C. Daly of the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco.
The study found that, after seven years of economic expansion from 1992 to 1998, the probability of employment among working-age disabled people dropped, and the share of their household income coming from their earnings had fallen. The share of their income from government disability benefits had climbed.
"We don't know what's going on, but we're fairly confident this is for real in the '90s," said Burkhauser, "and that's disappointing."
Burkhauser is one of 12 people appointed by Congress and President Clinton to monitor the new "Ticket to Work" federal law in which private agencies that successfully train and place the disabled in continuing employment will receive as payment some of the money they save the government.
The findings of the study on the employment of disabled adults, however, confounds people like Crispin Terry, an employment development specialist with the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services.
"That's very surprising to me because locally, if a person can do the job, if a person has the skills to do the job, employers will hire him or her. The unemployment rate is so low that employers are looking strictly at who can do the job.
Sylvia Lambert, the co-owner of Express Personnel Services in Huntsville, has called on Terry for help in recruiting job candidates.
"Because this is such a tight job market and we know there are disabled people who are very qualified and available to work, we've set up several job fairs" at Terry's office, Lambert said. "We will continue to do that.
"It's been a positive experience for Rehabilitation Services, for us, for the individual job candidate as well as the employer," Lambert said.
"I really believe in the (disabled) people I work with," said Terry, who's worked with placing the disabled in jobs for more than 12 years. "It's true that some of them have poor work habits, but that's true in the general population. Some people I've worked with for years, and I've seen the improvement in their work ethics."
The study also runs counter to the experience of job coaches with the Madison Area Supported Employment, a nonprofit program that finds employment for disabled people and receives referrals from the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services.
They're working with people in their 40s, even in their 60s, who are getting their first jobs.
"We have quite a few success stories," said Sally Emert, a job coach and employment specialist with MASE. Without the services of MASE's "Milestones" program, "they would be sitting at home or in a center somewhere. There are some people who would not be employed without some extra help."
Most of "Milestones" program clients are working entry-level jobs. Employers include restaurants, grocery Disabled employees struggle to be accepted in the work force Disabled stores, retail shops, day-care centers and manufacturers.
Emert and her fellow job coaches are constantly looking for companies with a position that would be suitable for their clients or firms that might be willing to develop a job. They evaluate their clients capabilities, their likes and dislikes.
"We try to match the job to the best of our ability to what our clients are interested in and what they're capable of doing," said Randy Nelson, job coach coordinator with MASE.
"We take (clients) in for a couple of hours to see how it works," Emert said. "It may work into a job."
Job coaching available
Clients aren't just left on their own.
Job coaching can last from a couple of days to a couple of months, and the coaches gradually cut back on their time with a client until the employer is satisfied and the employee is comfortable without the coach.
"They have to be able to maintain the job on their own for three months before a case is completely closed," said Emert. "But we never completely close a case." Support is still available as long as a client is in the job, Nelson said.
The effort is not without its challenges. Transportation is the biggest problem. Some employees can't drive to their jobs when their parents or care-givers might be working and unable to shuttle the disabled worker to and from a job.
Job coaches may have to work on social skills with people who aren't used to being told what to do.
"We have found for the most part that these clients are very dedicated, they're so glad to have something to give them self-worth," said Nelson.
"What's nickel and dime stuff to us is the whole world to them."
Happier than ever
Consider Ashley Huskey, a talkative 21-year-old who's hearing impaired.
She works part-time at The Olive Garden, stacking silverware in burgundy cloth napkins for dinner and white paper napkins for the lunch crowd. It's not her first job, but since being hired here in July, it's the longest period she's stayed with a job.
"I'm happier than I've ever been at a job," she said, as co-workers stopped by to greet her. When she talked about getting that weekly paycheck, her smile brightened. "I just feel amazed."
Huskey is the third disabled employee hired at the restaurant in the last two years. "Each time we've been blessed," said Rebecca Bayless, the general manager at the Olive Garden. "It brings camaraderie to the staff. It's been a good thing for us."
Jim Bottrell, Available Plastics' human resources manager, has nothing but good things to say about Robert Harms. "Robert is very dependable. You don't have to worry about whether he will do what needs to be done. We need more Roberts."
© 2000 The Huntsville Times.