WASHINGTON — Disabled Americans who want to work face the dimmest job prospects in recent memory.
More competition from non-disabled workers, employment discrimination and a sheer lack of jobs have pushed the jobless rate for disabled Americans to more than 16 percent. And the portion who are working has fallen to 21 percent from about 35 percent in the early 1980s, said Richard Burkhauser, a professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell University.
Rick Siego of Tucson is legally deaf. He has worked with disabled children and adults in previous jobs. But when he applied for a service position at a local agency that assists the disabled in February 2008, Siego was told they didn't hire the deaf for certain client-care jobs.
"I tried to talk to them and ask why, but they said it was due to safety issues," Siego said. A deaf female applicant, Lisa Parra, was told the same thing by the agency, Community Provider of Enrichment Services Inc.
"In this case, at least two job applicants with hearing impairments weren't given a chance to apply for work because CPES assumed they couldn't do the job," said Mary Jo O'Neill, Phoenix regional attorney for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
After Siego and Parra filed a discrimination complaint with the EEOC, CPES admitted no wrongdoing but agreed to pay Siego $33,500 in lost wages and damages. It also agreed to remove hearing as a prerequisite for service-provider applicants. Parra's EEOC complaint is being handled by a private attorney.
Officials at EEOC say Siego's and Parra's experiences are not unique. Workplace complaints alleging disability discrimination have grown steadily since the economy nosedived. In fiscal 2010, the EEOC fielded a record 25,165 such complaints. That pace slowed only slightly in the first half of fiscal 2011, when 12,317 new complaints were filed, according to preliminary figures.
H. Stephen Kaye, who heads the Disability Statistics Center at the University of California, San Francisco, said disabled workers lost jobs at nearly three times the rate of non-disabled workers over the last three years. That's mainly because they're more likely to hold lower-paying, lower-skilled jobs, which are often the first to go in a recession. Those with hearing problems, like Siego, have seen their labor force participation rate fall 21 percent from October 2009 to August 2011, Kaye said.
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