Originally created 09/06/98

Disabled people prove versatility



ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- In designing ink-jet printers that whip out photo-like color images, Peter Torpey has relied a great deal on what daffodil-dreaming poet William Wordsworth called his "inward eye."

Dr. Torpey excels as a computer engineer at Xerox Corp. because he can visualize what a machine's complex innards will deliver, and trusts in many opinions other than his own to create the prettiest of prints.

Just as well, because he's blind.

"It's hard to imagine how you could have a blind person doing image processing," he said with a wry smile.

"People have preconceived notions of what I can and can't do. You just have to show that you can do it, and find a way to do it," he said. "You show people enough successes and you'll slowly break down those barriers."

Dr. Torpey might not have a job in corporate America were it not for a shift in social attitudes toward people with disabilities and technological advances like his computer's speech synthesizer and Braille keyboard.

For the blind, the deaf and those with physical limitations, the PC revolution and a landmark anti-discrimination law enabled many long spurned as largely unemployable to enter a wider variety of jobs in the 1980s and 1990s.

While at least two-thirds of the 15 million Americans with severe disabilities remain idle -- even while surveys show most want to work -- those with jobs are proving their versatility and becoming more visible than ever in the nation's workplaces.

There are sparkling breakthroughs: a public-transport information guide in Chicago who is autistic, a blind editor at a metropolitan daily in Texas, a deaf public-school teacher in Seattle, a stage actor with cerebral palsy in Santa Barbara, Calif., a New Hampshire mechanic who is mentally challenged.

As employers increasingly look past the physical flaws that once stopped them from hiring the disabled, those inside the door are finding fewer obstacles to promotions and management posts. Some are even trying out new terrain their able-bodied peers take for granted, such as job-hopping.

"People usually think of us as being in $5.50 an hour jobs," said Jeanette Harvey, executive director of United Cerebral Palsy. "I think they need to see we're at high levels -- besides just functional levels."

While advocates note the lingering tendency of many employers to pigeonhole disabled workers into certain jobs rather than find creative ways to work around shortcomings or advance them up the career path, the successes can be no less remarkable at the bottom of the economic staircase.

Some view a menial job as a huge step up.

Pauline Naturile, a 35-year-old with the mental aptitude of a young teen-ager, is "really happy" bussing tables and wrapping silverware in napkins at a Red Lobster restaurant alongside a New Jersey highway.

"The workers are very nice, even the managers," she said. "They don't treat me differently," like in her previous job as a nursing home aide.

Having the respect of her colleagues has boosted Ms. Naturile's confidence and her competence on and off the job. A few years ago, she couldn't be left alone at home; now her stepparents can be away for a week, satisfied she'll fend for herself.

"She'll do things that three years ago she never would have even dreamt," including competing in weightlifting at the Special Olympics, said her stepmother, Roberta Martin, a retired special-education teacher.

"A lot of my students were capable of holding jobs 15 years ago but no one would give them a chance. Now society is slowly opening up to realize this population is a whole lot more capable, enthusiastic, trustworthy than anyone ever imagined."

The learning-impaired, just like the blind and those in wheelchairs, lag far down the disability ranks in their ability to find jobs, and Mrs. Martin lists the reasons: misinformation, fear, ignorance.

There are other, seemingly immovable hurdles: many disabled have low levels of education, cannot find a job that pays better than welfare or cannot afford a home near a job they're offered, said Frank Bowe, a professor of special education at Hofstra University.

"Great things are happening which are very encouraging to break down stereotypes, but for the large number of people with a disability, it's slow slogging, slower that anyone would like it to be," said Mr. Bowe, who is deaf.

Citing the 1964 Civil Rights Act's uphill drive against racial discrimination, Mr. Bowe thinks another decade or two might slip by before the far-reaching Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 can make a real difference. "These things take time," he said with a sigh.

Employment among the 54 million people with all degrees of disability grew by more than 1 million in the 1990s, but many openings were "lower-end jobs," said David Keer of the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research.

Among many categories of severely disabled, the employment rate has changed little in a decade, and employer perceptions about carrying extra costs appear to be a big drawback, Keer said.

"If the types of accommodations needed are costly or involve too much hassle, then the employer's not going to make them," he said. "The ADA notwithstanding, there's not enough case law yet in terms of what an employer has to provide in terms of `reasonable' accommodation."

Advocates argue, however, that at least two-thirds of the disabled don't need special equipment to perform their jobs, and estimate that accommodating them costs, on average, less than $50.

There are heartening trends. Education rates are rising: 75 percent of people with disabilities finished high school in 1994, up from 60 percent in 1986, and college enrollment jumped from 29 percent to 44 percent.

Colleges like the National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester offer a broader mix of courses than ever and its graduates are popping up in fields like medicine that were once virtually closed to them.

"The more education they have and the newer laws, it's harder for a place of work to just say no," said Janet MacLeod-Gallinger, who helps find jobs for the school's graduates.

Businesses led by IBM, Marriott, AT&T and Hertz have drawn up programs to tap into a pool of workers who, once given a chance, often display a greater-than-usual loyalty.

"There's a lot of talent out there waiting," said Charles Riley, editor in chief of WE, a Manhattan magazine targeted at people with disabilities.

There are also more role models than ever.

"There's nothing like success to make people feel comfortable that you can do it the next time," said Torpey, 45, who in 17 years creating software hasn't needed eyesight in pursuing the "ideal color print."

"Many people in image-processing work alone, whereas I was forced to get many people's opinions," said Torpey, who has a doctorate in engineering physics. Deciding what images work best becomes less of a subjective art and "more a global representation of people's desires."

"I think part of my success is I just don't take no for an answer," he added.