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Businesses put abilities of the disabled to work

Davelis "D.C." Goutoufas is the model of a modern bank manager.

He works on the front lines of NationsBank's war for customers, running a branch in a Tampa Winn-Dixie store.

Goutoufas canvasses the supermarket aisles for customers, helps them apply for loans and open accounts, and supervises four employees.

And Goutoufas, 30, is deaf. Five years ago, few banks would have hired him for such an intensive customer relations job.

Spurred by a federal law, enabled by technology, and encouraged by the tightest labor market in years, companies are beginning to look for good employees among a pool of people traditionally overlooked by corporate America: those with disabilities.

For years, an array of local not-for-profit organizations have worked to train and then find jobs for people with disabilities. To encourage businesses to hire their clients, the organizations developed a range of free services for companies. They screen the workers, train them, and employ coaches to help them succeed in the jobs. Some even help employers with the paperwork it takes to get a tax break for hiring the disabled and making their businesses accessible.

"That is part of our sell," said Rhonda Abbott, director of rehabilitation for Abilities of Florida Inc. "Not only are you getting a prescreened, and many times a well-trained, individual, but we teach them the soft skills," such as what is expected of employees and how to interact with co-workers.

"I would think that (hiring somebody from Abilities) would be less scary than hiring somebody on the street that you don't know diddly about."

Until the last few years, however, it was a struggle to get employers even to consider hiring the disabled.

"I remember when I used to have to fight to get someone in the door at companies," said Evelyn Vazquez, Goutoufas' job coach through Projects With Industry of MacDonald Training Center. "Now they call me."

Despite the uptick in demand, Vazquez added, there are still many employers who would not even consider hiring a disabled person. "There is still a lot of educating that needs to be done," she said.

A federal law and its effects

The first big boost to employment of the disabled came with passage in 1990 of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The federal law protects people with disabilities from discrimination and requires businesses to make "reasonable accommodations" so the disabled can work. The courts are still interpreting what "reasonable" means.

"When the ADA came into being, it didn't change people's attitude at first," said Sarah Parrish, spokeswoman for Goodwill-Suncoast. "But it did give that extra little push. They couldn't just automatically say, "No.' They had to question the applicants a little more, and they found out they really were quite qualified."

But the law had an adverse effect too. It made employers afraid to hire disabled people for fear of being sued if they fired them, even for perfectly legitimate reasons. They also worried that "reasonable accommodations" would break their budget, said Abbott of Abilities of Florida Inc.

But she says those are misunderstandings that are being cured by time and education: Most accommodations for disabled employees cost companies little to nothing. And, disabled employees can be fired just like anybody else as long as the company follows the same firing procedures it uses for other employees.

"If that person is not performing the essential duties of their job that they were hired to do, then of course you can take action," Abbott said.

Abbott is spending less time these days educating employers about the intricacies of ADA and more time answering telephone calls from business people looking for workers.

"Folks who used to come to us to find them jobs are finding jobs on their own now," she said. "And now employers are screaming for workers."

That may have more to do with the economy than with federal law. With the jobless rate at historic lows, desperate employers have had to become more creative about where they look for workers.

It was the worker shortage that sent BayCare Services to Goodwill Industries-Suncoast two years ago.

BayCare, which launders and sterilizes hospital linens, was having trouble finding and keeping employees. Many of its jobs are repetitive tasks that pay minimum wage. Workers who did take the jobs didn't stay long.

Now about a dozen workers with disabilities work at the plant, supervised by a full-time job coach provided by Goodwill at no cost to BayCare Services.

Job coach Susan Goldy works side-by-side with several mentally disabled workers as they pull green operating towels out of a jumbled pile. One-by-one, they lay each towel on top of a pile, smoothing them out as they go. The towels go on to another worker who folds them into operating room kits.

"It gives me a much better rapport with them," said Goldy, explaining why she works the towel line with her charges.

In BayCare's front office, Bob Young, who has cerebral palsy, types inventory numbers into a computer equipped with a keyboard designed to be impervious to a stray touch.

In another room, Michael Hatcher, who has tunnel vision and hearing impairment, sorts hospital laundry. His helper dog, Raxi, lies sleeping beneath a table.

"This gives me a chance to feel better about myself," he said.

It has been a good arrangement for BayCare, too, said Maryann DiLeo, the company's director of operations.

"They are here every day, and the work that they put out is quality work," she said. "We may have lost a little bit of production," but that's outweighed by less turnover.

The costs of accommodating the workers has been minimal: a sign with pictures to remind workers what to do when, the adjustable computer keyboard, letting Raxi lie near a door so she can be taken outside easily.

"We figure it's a win-win situation," said DiLeo.

Revolutionary technology

Technology has also helped improve job opportunities for people with disabilities.

On shelves and desktops at the Florida Alliance for Assistive Services and Technology, or FAAST, sit a variety of devices that can make the difference between working and joblessness.

People with disabilities and their employers are invited to try out the devices at FAAST's demonstration center at Tampa General Hospital.

Among the inexpensive, low-tech devices that can make work easier for the disabled: thick padding for pencils, reachers for grabbing things off high shelves, doorknob turners.

But it is the personal computer that has revolutionized the lives of many disabled people, and the center displays a variety of machines and software.

A voice-operated computer sits in one corner. It can do everything from turning on lights to typing e-mail without the user touching the keyboard. Another computer can be operated by a light attached to a worker's forehead. Like a hand-operated mouse, the light can be pointed at the screen to issue computer commands.

One computer has software that can scan a page into a computer and then blow up the letters as large as the user likes. Another reads back words on the screen for the blind.

There are keyboards that twist, some with extra-big letters, others that can be adjusted for sensitivity.

"For people with disabilities, assistive technology makes things possible," said Nancy Mashberg, FAAST's regional coordinator.

A success story

Without technology, Goutoufas, the NationsBank branch manager, would find it difficult to do his job. Fifty years ago, he said, it would have been impossible.

The University of Tampa graduate, who reads lips and speaks well, has few problems communicating one-on-one with customers or employees. He enlists a sign language interpreter, provided by NationsBank, for meetings with groups of people.

But for phone calls, Goutoufas uses a TDD telephone, also provided by NationsBank, that allows him to type his words. An operator then reads the words to the other caller.

And he uses e-mail to communicate with his supervisors and others within the bank, just as other branch managers do.

Goutoufas started his banking career working in a Barnett Bank mailroom. He steadily moved up the ranks at a number of banks. He decided to go to work at NationsBank about nine months ago "because they like to win."

Since then, he has successfully completed the bank's management training program and was given his own branch to manage on Gandy Boulevard. He has met all the company's goals for that branch, NationsBank representatives said.

"My parents told me I could do anything I wanted to do if I work hard," Goutoufas said. "I found out that was true."

Now, he added, employers need to learn the same thing. "My advice to them is to focus on applicants' qualifications and not on their disabilities."

Organizations that provide job placement for the disabled

Abilities of Florida Inc., (813) 673-4600

Boley Centers for Behavioral Health Care, vocational services, (813) 528-8400

Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, (813) 871-7300

Division of Blind Services, (813) 871-7190

Epilepsy Services of West Central Florida, (813) 870-3414

Goodwill Industries _ Suncoast, (813) 523-1512

Hillsborough Association of Retarded Citizens, (813) 932-7011

MacDonald Training Center Inc., (813) 870-1300

Renal Employment Program, (813) 254-2558

Tampa Lighthouse for the Blind, (813) 251-2407

United Cerebral Palsy, (813) 239-1179

Upper Pinellas Association For Retarded Citizens, (813) 799-3330, ext. 7629

Questions frequently asked by employers considering hiring the disabled

Is it expensive to make adjustments to the workplace to accommodate employees with disabilities?

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to make "reasonable accommodations" for workers with disabilities. But nearly 70 percent of adults with disabilities who are working, or willing and able to work, do not need any special equipment or technology, according to a 1994 Harris survey. And a 1994 federal government study found that 20 percent of required accommodations cost nothing, while another 50 percent cost less than $500. There also may be tax deductions available to businesses that make their equipment accessible to the disabled.

Is it difficult to supervise employees with disabilities?

A 1987 Harris poll of managers said employees with disabilities were no harder to supervise than employees without disabilities. The poll found that almost 90 percent of workers with disabilities received "good" or "excellent" performance ratings from their managers.

What salary range is fair?

Employees with disabilities should receive prevailing wages and benefits based on productivity and job performance.

Will hiring people with disabilities cause my workers' compensation rates to increase?

Workers' compensation rates are based on injuries that have occurred at a company, not on who is in the work force.

Source: Florida Department of Labor and Employment Security

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