Thursday, October 16, 2008

Businesses honored for disability access, equality


Dozens of local leaders headed to the fourth annual Mayor’s Breakfast in Santa Barbara yesterday morning to celebrate businesses that have made outstanding efforts in the field of disability equality and access.
Mayor Marty Blum, who hosted the first breakfast in 2005 with Councilmember Helene Schneider, acknowledged the path to equality for those with disabilities is tough, but expressed optimism for the future.

“Attitudinal barriers are often the most difficult to change,” she said. “I deal with them every day. Sometimes they’re my own.”
As an indication of local progress on the issue, she cited the growing attendance at the Mayor’s Breakfast, which grew from only a few tables and attendees several years ago to a full house at the Cabrillo Arts Pavilion.
“It’s amazing how much it’s grown,” she said.
The annual event, which coincides with National Disability Employment Awareness Month, awards businesses in the city that have made progress in the employment of people with disabilities.
Before the mayor got down to the business of handing out honors, however, she invited keynote speaker Ralph Black to the podium.
Black, the assistant director of legislation for the California Department of Rehabilitation, attended CSU Long Beach and graduated near the top of his class from Loyola Law School despite vision impairment.
“The reason we’re all here is to try to address the question of why we still have such a high unemployment rate for people with disabilities,” he said, noting that 70 percent of working-age people with disabilities don’t have a job.
Some have disabilities that are too severe to allow full-time work, others don’t have training or preparation, and some are afraid they’ll lose their disability benefits, he said, while a few are just downright lazy.
“But discrimination against people with disabilities is alive and well,” Black said.
He experienced it himself upon graduation from law school. Despite sending out dozens of applications and interviewing at numerous law firms, he couldn’t get hired anywhere.
“I began to realize it was most likely because of my disability,” he said. “They weren’t willing to take that chance.”
And while he admitted the situation has improved since he went on the job hunt, Black described how a blind woman had just been in his office asking for tips on getting hired.
The woman had worked as a U.S. attorney in Chicago, but couldn’t find employment after moving to California several years ago.
To address the fears that employers might have about taking someone with a disability on board, Black ran down a list of suggestions and advice. First, don’t talk to company lawyers, he said, explaining that they’ll give long and complicated explanations about why hiring a disabled person is a liability.
“You’ll be so scared you won’t want to hire anybody, much less a person with a disability,” he said.
Black also noted that hiring someone with a disability doesn’t require an employer to make drastic changes to accommodate the new employee. Instead, business owners are only expected to make reasonable accommodations, he said.
Other suggestions he made included urging business owners not to be afraid to establish expectations and ensure the employee meets those expectations just as they would for any other worker.
With Black yielding the microphone, Mayor Blum returned to hand out honors to a group of employers for their contributions to disability employment.
Scott Durfor, the manager at Paseo Nuevo Movie Theater, took the first award for employer accommodations. The mayor commended him for hiring several people through local organizations that prepare those with disabilities to enter the workforce.
Durfor said the honor came as a complete surprise and shock, adding that he had to ask several times to make sure they had it right.
“I did nothing other than treat them like any other employee,” he said. “They are valuable members of my team.”
Mayor Blum delivered the next award, for design and accessibility, to Dan Cornet, a senior deputy labor commissioner with the Department of Industrial Relations who has since retired.
While admitting he had serious reservations about taking on a disabled employee as an office assistant, he called it “one of the best decisions” he made in his 31 years with the department.
Cornet said Beau Wilding, the employee he hired approximately a year ago, a quick learner and conscientious worker.
“It didn’t take long for us to forget he even had a disability,” he said.
Wilding, who attended the awards, said his fellow employees are the primary reason he enjoys his job, calling them excellent, intellectual and warm.
“It feels like a very supportive atmosphere,” he said, adding, “I’ll be there for a while.”
The next award went to Noozhawk, an online news Web site that received recognition for portraying those with disabilities equally and with dignity. Founder, publisher and CEO William McFayden described the site as one way to recognize individuals, disabled or not, for their strengths, blessings and gifts to the community.
“Noozhawk is about making this community smaller,” he said, inviting everyone in the room to submit their own articles to the site.
Mayor Blum handed out the final award, for outstanding effort, to Santa Barbara City College for making a major shift toward supporting deaf education. The community college launched American Sign Language (ASL) courses, started a summer ASL immersion program, hired two deaf instructors and created a tenured ASL professor position now filled by Ignacio Ponce.
“Every day we strive as our community college for access equality,” said Marilyn Spaventa, dean of educational programs. “…We’re only just beginning.”

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