Fully Capable - New Technology Helps Disabled Workers

OKC Biz magazine, May 20th, 2010

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New technology, programs help disabled employees become more successful Heide Brandes 3.22.2010

Ed Abel stands at his Abel Law Firm. photo/Mark Hancock Ed Abel’s office at the Abel Law Firm is quietly powerful and tactful, much like the man himself. As one of Oklahoma City’s most successful lawyers, he sits behind a deep cherry-red wooden desk, lounging back and speaking clearly.

Yet he doesn’t drive. He doesn’t read. He doesn’t even recognize his clients.

Abel doesn’t see.

As one of thousands of professionals employed in the United States, Abel is blind. But losing his eyesight early in his career didn’t stop him from going on to grow a large, thriving practice. More and more, the disabled are becoming successful business people, thanks to governmental aid programs and, more importantly, technology that makes doing business easier for those who cannot see, hear, move or speak.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, disabled people are nearly twice as likely as the nondisabled to start a business.

Nearly 15% of working disabled people are self-employed, compared to 10% of nondisabled working people. The Disabled Businesspersons Association claims that 40% of home-based businesses are operated by people with disabilities.

“The new technology available today can make it possible for those with disabilities to have fulfilling careers,” says Jody Harlan of the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services. “Today we have more and more opportunities for people with disabilities to enter the workforce or start their own businesses.”

Abel and willing In the 1970s, Abel was a budding lawyer with a promising career in personal injury litigation. While driving back from a ski trip in Colorado, he kept swatting at a bug that flew in and out of his field of vision.

“It wasn’t a bug, but I kept seeing this spot in my vision,” he says. “What I was having were small hemorrhages in my eye. I went to the doctor and he said, ‘You’ll be blind in a year.’”

A type 1 diabetic since age 8, Abel knew he had the risk of losing his eyesight, but still, the idea of being blind was a shock.

“It scared me to death,” he says. “I had a family, two little girls to support. I was early in my law career, and I just kept thinking, ‘This can’t be right. What in the world am I going to do?’”

For many adults facing such news, fear and depression easily can set back a promising career. Although successful now, Abel faced that same danger.

“There were two or three things that helped me,” he says. “One was my faith in God. I really feel that during my lifetime, I’ve had several prayers really answered. Secondly, I got good counseling. We guysare supposed to be tough, you know, but I found counseling was extremely helpful. Thirdly, I had excellent medical care, and I didn’t go completely blind in a year.”

Although his vision didn’t disappear completely until a few years ago, the disability made it impossible for him to perform simple, everyday tasks.

“I got to the point where I couldn’t recognize faces, and for some reason, I was very embarrassed by that,” Abel says. “But some of the clients I represented, I learned from.”

One of them was a young man who was burned on more than 80% of his body and horribly disfigured, but more accepting of himself than Abel was at the time.

“I asked him, ‘How do you stand it when you walk in and people stare at you?’ He said he had to get to the point that he realized he was not his neighbor’s greatest concern,” Abel says. “In five minutes, that person who is staring will go back to other worries. That struck a chord in me. I realized I was not my neighbors’ greatest concern.”

The young man went on to become a successful surgeon, and it was a lesson Abel hasn’t forgotten. For 44 years, Abel has successfully practiced law in Oklahoma City.

“I decided this was who I was now,” he says. “I can cry about it or I can get up and make today the best day. I have to figure out how to make today work for me.”

That means hiring a full-time assistant who drives him, reads to him and assists him. Although some privacy and personal freedom are sacrificed, Abel said he’s still able to run a successful business.

Making it work Being disabled in the workforce is becoming more accommodating, says Harlan. For instance, many governmental programs, such as the Department of Rehabilitation Services, offer incentives and assistance to employers who hire disabled candidates.

“Now, technology really narrows the gap,” Harlan says. “That’s the reason we offer incentives to employers who hire the disabled. The same applications we use to make our lives easier, like DragonDictate, have been used by the disabled for years.”

Technology, training and the growth of telecommuting jobs mean more opportunities for the disabled.

“Telecommuting and flexible scheduling can mean the difference between not working and doing the job just fine,” Harlan says. “In terms of looking for a job, our department offers stimulus money to help employers pay for a person with a disability, for training and necessary startup costs.”

In 2009, the department’s divisions of Vocational Rehabilitation and Visual Services helped 1,689 people with disabilities start new jobs.

As a result, they reduced the need for disability benefits and social services, and paid taxes on collective earnings of $19.2 million. The divisions also provided career-preparation services to 12,431 Oklahomans. Both divisions work with employers to match qualified employees with job opportunities, share costs of bringing new employees up to speed, and advise on available tax credits and deductions for hiring workers with disabilities.

“Disabled employees are four to five times more likely to stay on the job,” Harlan says. “They don’t take their jobs lightly. Employing the disabled is also good for the state— it’s good for the person being hired, it’s good for the company hiring and it’s good for the taxpayer.”

Census figures According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s “2007 American Community Survey,” Oklahomans with disabilities were employed at a rate of 37.7% in 2007, compared to 80.4% for nondisabled people in the work-age population.

“Nearly 12% of our staff have disabilities, and we find that they are dedicated and committed to helping others go to work,” says Michael O’Brien, DRS director.

According to the U. S. Census Bureau, 49.7 million Americans have a disability, with two-thirds of these having a severe disability. The 2000 Census reported the total number of people with disabilities aged 16-64 is slightly more than 33 million. Of those, the total number employed is nearly 18.6 million.

Of the 18.6 million people aged 16-64 employed with disabilities, 60.1% of men with disabilities are employed, and 51.4% of women with disabilities are employed.

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