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Blind Ambition Article appears in the December 26, 2005 of the BE

It’s been 15 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act was created to level the paying field for the disabled – and so far, the disabled are outperforming employers in reaching the goal.

By Paul Schrag, Business Examiner staff

Robert Ott is a self-made success. As president of Certain Victory Food Services in Lakewood, he commands an army of some 800 employees and is responsible for orchestrating the care and feeding of nearly 20,000 ravenous Fort Lewis soldiers seven days a week, 365 days a year. It's a logistical nightmare at times, requiring attention to detail, massive organizational abilities and a team of good people.

When he's not feeding famished soldiers, Ott is a martial arts instructor, with a sixth-degree black belt in Hapkido, a Korean martial art that emphasizes redirection and manipulation of opponents' momentum. He earned four of those degrees and all of his current business successes, after he lost his eyesight more than a decade ago.
Ott is legally blind. But his resume doesn't suggest that fact.

This CEO is among a growing number of entrepreneurs and workers who are climbing corporate ranks with guts, grace and, in increasing numbers, astonishing success. While most of their success hinges on determination and skills, their gains come, at least in part, thanks to government policies aimed at providing disabled people with equal opportunities in employment.

Ott, for example, is among some 2,600 blind vendors in the United States working with assistance provided by an 80-year-old program created by a federal mandate called the Randolph-Sheppard Act. All in all, government programs such as this one, which are aimed at assisting the disabled find work, provide more than 11,000 jobs to disabled workers nationwide. And while the National Disability Council reports a 50 percent jump in requests for workers with disabilities from companies during the previous year, only 25 percent of America's disabled population or working-age is employed, compared with 79 percent of the general working population.

The other three-quarters of people with disabilities say they have a willingness and desire to work, according to a survey for National Organization on Disability by Louis Harris & Associates.

While the program that helped Ott launch his current career has been around since the late 1930s, it has only been 15 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act created a federal mandate aimed at providing disabled people who are able to work a level playing field in an increasingly competitive job market.

Ott's leg-up came through a program known in most states as the Business Enterprise Program. The programs provide people who are legally blind with employment through operation of vending facilities on federal and other governmental properties.

A night that changed Ott's life
Long before he knew anything about the Randolph-Sheppard Act, Ott was an eager 21-year-old running his own martial arts school in Camden County, New Jersey. One night in October 1990 – by coincidence, the same year Congress passed the ADA law – he stepped in to protect a woman against unwelcome advances by a drunken bar hopper. What started as an attempt to curtail the man's wandering hands turned into a fight outside the bar. Ott's memory clouds as he tries to recall what happened next. He knows his opponent walked away, only to return with a pistol. He also knows he was shot in the side of the head at point-blank range.

"I was blind when I awoke," he says, "but I was lucky, I guess. I had a bullet go through my head. I was just happy to be alive."

Eventually, after months in recovery and rehabilitative care, Ott returned to the world outside hospital wards, working with a counselor on strategies for employment without sight. He was then told about BEP – a six-month, crash course in food vending that included placement assistance with government agencies.
"I remember thinking 'This isn't me,'" he says. "But it gave me an opportunity to get back on my feet."

Ott blazed through the training, only to find there were no contracts or opportunities available in New Jersey. His job placement counselor half jokingly offered him an opportunity in Washington State.

"He never thought in a million years that I would take it," Ott recalls, "but I did."
He left Camden, arriving in Seattle with $500 and two duffel bags. He lived in a Lions Club dormitory, while scrambling to formulate a business plan, find employees, establish supply lines and learn how to navigate the Emerald City without the benefit of a map.

"I remember being thankful that the people in the Northwest were generous," he says. "At home (in New Jersey), I probably would have been a goner."

A month or so later, Ott opened the Modern Day Cafe, catering to workers at the Seattle office of National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, which does environmental research for the U.S. Department of Commerce.

"I ran the Modern Day for 10 years," he says. "I began to see that what I was doing, and the struggle to overcome, was part of my destiny."

Ott eventually became involved in advocating for the program that had helped him get on the road to achieving so much. He has since joined BEP administrative ranks and today serves as its vice chairman for Washington, helping develop the program and make it relevant as workplace issues arise.

Workplace issues
Stories such as Ott's are inspiring, says Cliff Schulman, a design consultant for Lakewood-based Center for Independence, which advocates for disabled workers and trains businesses on how to make their workplaces accessible to disabled workers. Life might be easier for disabled workers than previous generations experienced, but businesses still have lots to learn when it comes to making the local workplaces truly accessible to the disabled.

"I tell this story to illustrate the difficulty we still face," says Schulman. "A law was passed that all post offices must have ramps so people with wheelchairs can get in and out of the building. One day, local officials were preparing for a meeting to plan how the ramps were going to be installed, when a local postmaster stormed into the room. 'What's all this nonsense about installing ramps?' the disgruntled postmaster asked. 'We don't need them. I mean, I've never had a single disabled person come into my post office.'"

For those who scoff at the story, believing that America has truly turned the corner in equality, Schulman would ask that they consider that there is no requirement, for example, that companies make disabled workers part of their disaster escape plans. For now, people working in a wheelchair on the third floor during a fire, for example, are forced to take the stairs.

That fact and Schulman's anecdote illustrate one of the core messages contained within the Americans with Disabilities Act. That law was passed more than 15 years ago to ensure, among other things, that disabled people are able to access buildings and services such as telecommunications and transportation. It's just not safe to assume accommodations were being made, said framers of the Act, because people don't see the problem.

The scope of ADA in addressing barriers to participation by people with disabilities in the mainstream is broad. Its civil rights protections are similar to those previously established for women and racial, ethnic and religious minorities.
The law mandates equality, says Schulman, and that intimidates many employers. Next to general lack of awareness, fear of the ADA is the No. 1 barrier to disabled workers participating equally in the workplace.

"Employers get the sense that, if they do something wrong, somebody is going to sue them," says Schulman. "But businesses have rights too, under the ADA. Many people know the name 'ADA,' but don't know what it is or what it really means."
Employers consider it a sort of Catch-22, according to a report published by the Society for Human Resource Management and Cornell University. Although the ADA prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of disability, human resource managers and recruiters say they are concerned about the legal complexity in following the requirements of the Act.

Nearly 75 percent of 813 respondents reported uncertainty when coordinating leave under the ADA, Family and Medical Leave Act, and short- and long-term disability programs, although most said they employ legal counsel, consultants, organizations, and disability management staff for guidance in resolving ADA issues.

Many indicated that disabled persons face a more challenging recruitment process because of several possible barriers. More than 50 percent of managers who responded said their own lack of related experience in communicating with disabled persons was a barrier to candidates' employment and advancement. An example is an interviewer who is unfamiliar with working with a sign language interpreter for the deaf. A full 31 percent of respondents said they lacked knowledge about which kind of accommodations to make and 22 percent said the attitudes and stereotypes of supervisors and coworkers blocked disabled candidates' success in the recruiting process.

On a more positive side, almost three-quarters of respondents said they had some kind of disability management program. The study showed that managers are making inroads to the huge market of disabled persons and are accommodating them through flexible human resource policies, job restructuring and modified work hours.

Equality is the goal
Legal complexities aside, Schulman says the object of ADA in simple terms is to ensure everybody gets treated equally.

"If they don't qualify for the job, you don't hire them," he says. "If they qualify, and there are others who are more qualified, you still hire the most qualified person. It's all very much common sense."

In an interview, for example, an employer faced with a computer programmer in a wheelchair might be tempted to ask about the disability. That's a no-no, says this advocate, who suggests focusing on the person's qualifications.

"The disability shouldn't even be a factor at first," says Schulman. "If the disability comes up, the proper question is 'Do you need any accommodations?'"

Too many companies still avoid interviews and resumes from disabled applicants simply because the subject of disability is a murky one. 

"I have dealt with several companies that have not hired a disabled applicant simply because they were too uncomfortable to talk to them," he says.

A worthwhile investment
Others simply worry about the cost of accommodations – a concern that in most cases is unwarranted. In fact, says Schulman, most people with disabilities require no costly accommodations at all.  Simply moving furniture around or asking someone on the staff to perform a small, non-essential function of the job, like changing overhead light bulbs, etc.

Companies also can benefit from the savings in long-term training costs due to lower turnover rates among these employees. Some 90 percent of disabled persons perform above the overall average on the job, with safety and attendance records above the norm as well, according a Dupont Co.-sponsored study on workers' performance.
When an investment in accommodation is required, 70 percent of the cases cost less than $100, according to figures provided by Center for Independence. A small number, just 3 percent, cost more $3,000, which may be deemed "unreasonable" for a small company. But help is available to cover some of those costs. Most companies can take an annual deduction of up to $15,000 for expenses related to accommodating disabled employees.

Access accommodations – structural changes such as ramps – are a one-time expense and can sometimes be amortized. Ramps vary in cost depending on height, length and number of switchbacks, ranging from several hundred dollars into the thousands. There are public and private organizations that will help with the cost of material and provide the labor for qualified people, says Schulman, who also is blind and uses voice recognition software to write and receive e-mail messages.

"The ADA works for everybody," he adds. "The intent of the law is  environmental justice – that everybody has the same right to qualify for and gain employment."
Ott, meanwhile, is learning the benefits of hiring disabled workers from a unique perspective.

"First, it gives me a fabulous feeling that I was able to open a door for someone to have a chance," he says. "I remember when I got out of the hospital that it was almost impossible to get work. People kept saying I would get a job because of this program or that, but it's easier said than done. Employers need to hold out their hands."

Some 22 percent of Ott's staff is disabled and his company runs like a well oiled machine, he says – proof positive that disabled workers can do the job.
"It gives me a chance to show society what is possible," he says.