Originally created 11/04/99

Businesses hire disabled



Willie Jones has been blind for nearly 25 years, but he's a more marketable employee now than he ever has been. He says technology is helping him access and process information with newfound clarity and speed.

In this period of record low unemployment, Mr. Jones says he believes employers will look to people like him -- those who have computer skills and technology training -- when hiring.

"It's about communication," Mr. Jones said from behind the dimly lit screen of his computer at Walton Options, where he works part time as a computer trainer. Walton Options is a nonprofit group that assists disabled people in the 20-county area surrounding Augusta. "Businesses will understand they can have some very good employees by hiring the disabled."

Companies say they are clamoring for skilled employees.

Unemployment in Augusta in September was 5.3 percent, down from 5.6 percent at the same time last year. And the Labor Department continues to urge the elderly and the disabled, two groups with high unemployment histories, to join the work force.

When Mr. Jones is not training other visually impaired people on the computer, he works part time as a telemarketer for The Augusta Chronicle.

But nearly 80 percent of the people who are visually impaired are unemployed, said Nancy Campbell, a rehabilitation counselor for the State Department of Human Resources division of rehabilitation services. The state department places people with disabilities in jobs.

"The unemployment level has given (the state department) the ability to get more people with disabilities placed with businesses," Ms. Campbell said.

"But it's going to take more than low unemployment" to lower joblessness rates among the disabled, she said. "It's going to take a continued change in people's attitudes."

The disabled historically have made up the largest identified group of jobless people in the nation, state department officials report. Despite federal incentives provided to employers working under the Americans with Disabilities Act, many businesses still say they believe it can be costly to make the workplace handicap accessible.

"Costs have dropped tremendously," Ms. Campbell said. "If (employers) look at it, they might find it's not as expensive as they think."

The software that allows Mr. Jones to read e-mail, navigate the Web and read company memos costs about $800. The program adapts to Microsoft Windows and has a voice synthesizer that reads text and Windows applications aloud.

"Employers have the perception that it is expensive to make the workplace accessible to the disabled," said Tiffany Johnston, executive director of Walton Options. "But what's (a few hundred dollars) for something that's going to allow someone to see again in a very different but very real way?"

Savannah River Site is one of several area employers that work with the disabled.

"In some cases the accommodations you make are very low tech," said Will Callicott, spokesman for Westinghouse Savannah River Co. "The cases that I am familiar with, the investment has certainly been worth it."

Reach Heidi Coryell at (706) 823-3215.

For more information about hiring disabled individuals or to learn about job opportunities for the handicapped, call the State Department of Human Resources division of rehabilitation services at 650-5638. To learn more about computer training for the disabled, call Walton Options at 724-6262.