March 26, 2009 – Rachel Siler, 23, graduated college at the top of her class 18 months ago with a degree in fashion marketing, extensive experience producing fashion events and a list of strong references.
For seven months she went to more than 75 interviews – sometimes attending three or more a week – but was never offered a job. Siler has muscular dystrophy and said she believes potential employers were turned off by her wheel chair.
“People don’t want to hire disabled people because they think we’re a liability,” she said. “But that’s a complete stereotype.” Siler’s medical needs are about the same as any other 23-year-old woman, she said, except that every five years she has to replace her wheel chair.
A state law that took effect Feb. 1 may offer some relief to Siler and 33 million other working-age Americans with disabilities by letting full-time, disabled workers buy Medicaid coverage.
The law provides incentive to people with disabilities that want to work full time but don’t for fear of losing their health coverage through Medicaid, said state Rep. Kathy Ryg, who co-sponsored the law.
But it also encourages businesses to look past the cane or wheel chair to an applicant’s qualification for the job.
But while Medicaid extensions may help reduce disabilities-based discrimination, it does little to help elderly workers, who experience similar prejudice.
Jim Kelly, 64, a flooring specialist who has been looking for work for months, said he believes health insurance is the culprit.
“It’s like the unspoken, invisible word,” he said. “People aren’t going to say, ‘Well Jim, you’re 64 and you’re going to raise my insurance premiums because you’re at a higher risk factor.’”
Kelly will qualify for Medicare later this year when he turns 65, which he expects to help his job prospects.
“At least they’ll know from the front end that I am not going to need insurance,” he said.
Small business owners can’t help but consider their bottom line when hiring new staff, and health care has a big impact, said James Meerdink, organizer for the Illinois Main Street Alliance, a small-business trade group that focuses on health care.
According to a recent study by the U.S. Office of Disability Employment Policy, about 9 percent of total American businesses reported hiring people with disabilities in the last 12 months.
Large businesses were more than three times more likely to hire disabled people than small or medium companies, and about 72 percent of all companies reported that people with disabilities could not perform the work required for vacant jobs.
But Meerdink said the problem is deeper than that.
The health care system is forcing small business owners to choose between financial stability and providing health benefits, so when they are interviewing applicants for open positions, they cannot help but consider the ultimate cost to their business of hiring someone with greater than average health care needs, he said.
“For small businesses, it’s an acute issue,” he said. “Sometimes it comes down to ‘I can offer insurance or I can stay in business.’ No one should have to make that choice.”
Sue Murphy, association manager for the National Human Resources Association, said she hasn’t seen evidence of that trend but that it would be “naïve” to deny the practice. But, she said, making hiring decisions based on the perceived health of an applicant could do more financial harm than good.
“Some companies may make an assumption based on age what [the applicant’s] health care needs are, but that’s not always accurate,” she said. “Sometimes the older folks are healthier than the young folks.”
In the long run, she said, companies could end up spending more money fighting discrimination lawsuits than they would on benefits for disabled or elderly persons.
In fact, most people with disabilities are equally as productive as their co-workers, missing the same number or fewer days of work each year and having equal or fewer health care needs, said Peter Berg, project coordinator of technical assistance for the Great Lakes Disabilities Business Technical Assistance Center.
Siler eventually found a job at the Progress Center for Independent Living in Forest Park, Ill., which helps people with disabilities transfer out of nursing homes into apartments. She has been living on her own since she was 18.
Siler said she hopes to go back into the fashion industry, but for now, she’s happy helping people with disabilities take control of their lives by moving out of assisted-care facilities.
“I love what I do,” she said.