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The Dignity of Work and an Employer that Values It

By Concha Delgado-Gaitán

What does it take to be a productive worker if you are a person with a disability? Nearly 72% of people with disabilities who can and wish to work persistently face unemployment and underemployment. (DisabilityWorld, Nov-Dec 2003) This is largely due to the employers’ lack of accommodations for the employees’ disability. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), hiring disabled employees is a federal mandate for employers with more than 15 employees. Additionally, in California there is a State law requiring businesses with more than five employees to hire and accommodate disabled employees. But how real is the possibility of employment for people with disabilities, in particular Latinos? For two Latinas in the San Francisco Bay Area the Center for Independent Living (CIL) has been the first employer that allowed them to maximize their skills and training. Thanks to the accommodations that CIL made in their workplace they have been steadily employed.

Since 1972, CIL’s founding mission has been to advocate, train, and assist people with all types of disabilities to become fully independent. Clients receive workshops, resources, and services as well as physical and personal support. And for Raquel and Leticia, CIL has been their place of occupation and where they can assist others with disabilities to accomplish what the two young women now have, a future with promise.

Raquel first contacted CIL when she was in high school and needed both social and academic support that her school did not provide. CIL taught her about her disability through support groups. They supplied her with an assistant that could help her with her studies at school, minimizing frustration that was pushing her out of school. As a client of CIL Raquel found advocates to meet with school personnel on her behalf at Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) meetings concerning her placement in classes and in the day-to-day classroom routine. Raquel needed extended time to do her studies, but many educators found that difficult to understand since they believed that all students should complete their work as fast as possible. Through the support by CIL and school personnel who allowed her adequate time to complete her work, Raquel’s confidence grew. She learned to use visual cues to read books and used computer software that reads her email to her.

Tasting success in her schoolwork as well as in her relationships with teachers and family members moved Raquel to the front of the line in all areas of her life. Before long, Raquel was volunteering at CIL, assisting other young people with different disabilities while continuing to participate in awareness training for herself. And for Raquel, graduating from high school was the evidence she needed that she was in total control of her life.

With high school under her belt, Raquel was ready to step into a full-time position as a youth counselor at CIL. More than assisting youth with awareness, resources, and other services, “I enjoy reminding them to stay in school,” says Raquel proudly.

Not unlike Raquel, Leticia Escalera needed support through school and into her career life in order to succeed. It wasn’t until she was attending community college that Leticia was diagnosed with a learning disability. Finally, she got proof that she was not “lazy” – as teachers had labeled her – and the many extra hours she invested studying were about to change. Strong motivation came through her mother’s words that rang loud in her memory, “You need to get an education and a good profession.” Leticia’s love for learning led her to learn English (her second language), complete her high school GED and graduate from community college with a degree in Divinity.

Nevertheless Leticia still faced employment challenges. In spite of her willingness to work twice as hard as everyone around her, Leticia had to waitress for a living since employers refused to hire her and accommodate her disability. While working at a part-time job, a flyer circulated for a job referral position at CIL. Leticia’s dream of a full-time position seemed close as she seized the opportunity. In her interview, she informed CIL of her disability and convinced them she was a dedicated worker and could perform any duty required of her with the proper support. Little did she know that this time her honesty and forthrightness would prove beneficial. CIL recognized her bilingual ability along with her enthusiasm for working with the public. The organization committed to providing Leticia the specific support she needed to help her succeed in the position. After all, this was CIL’s mission for all of their employees and now Leticia would join them. That was eight years ago. Leticia has grown professionally at CIL and now is the coordinator of the CIL office in Fruitvale, CA.

According to Jan Garrett, CIL Director, the average cost for an employer to accommodate a disabled employee is under $500. As an advocate for people with disabilities, Jan is working to help ensure state and federal laws will be followed up with resources for employers to become knowledgeable of how feasible it is to hire and accommodate disabled people.

Jan commented on the question of assisting employers to meet their responsibility, “We do provide businesses with resources and information so that they can better accommodate our disabled clients.” She believes that comprehensive services to people with disabilities are, however, their primary focus. But working with our clients’ employers is necessary to ensure that people with disabilities experience success in the workplace.

Considering the high percentage of unemployment of disabled people including Latinos, the urgency is great to educate employers about hiring and accommodating employees with disabilities. In the San Francisco Bay Area, CIL is educating employers as well as setting a great example through its hiring practices.

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