BALTIMORE — In elementary school, Erik Anders was told he would never be able to hold down a job or live on his own.

“I was told I would never be able to live like a normal person,” said Anders, 28, who has Asperger’s syndrome and now works for a Baltimore-area window maker and rents his own apartment. “I was able to prove some people wrong. … I’m independent, and a lot of people with disabilities can work on their own.”

The employee of Acadia Windows and Doors, who installs glass in window sashes and operates machinery, finds himself in the minority as a person with a disability. Only 17 percent of those with disabilities were employed last year; another 12 percent actively sought employment but were unsuccessful. Anders and other advocates say discrimination still persists a quarter-century after landmark civil rights legislation guaranteed equal access for people with disabilities.

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Since July 26, 1990, when President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, it has become a lot easier for people with disabilities to ride a bus, get into a building or use a computer. But advocates say employers’ perceptions have been slow to change.

While many physical barriers have fallen away, the workplace remains the next frontier. A movement is underway, for instance, to phase out sheltered workshops that segregate people with disabilities and pay subminimum wages in favor of integrating people into the larger workforce.

With unemployment rates at more than double the national average, “what that means is most people with disabilities are shut off from society,” said Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which promotes inclusion of people with disabilities and offers job placement services.

The ADA “didn’t really deal with employment,” he said. “It mandated providing accommodations, physical accommodations so people could access buildings, but it didn’t say hiring people with disabilities was a priority.”

For those with disabilities, “employment is the avenue to so many things,” said Steve Pemberton, chief diversity officer for Walgreens.

The drugstore chain launched an initiative seven years ago at its distribution centers to hire workers with disabilities, giving them the same pay, jobs and expectations as all other workers. What started as a former executive’s motivation to help people like his own son with autism ended up being good for business, Pemberton said.

Concerns about safety and costly accommodations have not been borne out, and retention and productivity in the supply chain have remained the same or improved, Pemberton said. Workers with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism and other disabilities now make up 12 percent of Walgreens’ distribution center workforce, Pemberton said.

The chain has recently started a training program to hire workers with disabilities as service clerks in Walgreens stores, he said.

At The Arc Northern Chesapeake Region, which serves an area outside Baltimore, job coaches work with about 100 workers with developmental and intellectual disabilities who have been placed with employers in retail, food services and warehouse jobs.

“We don’t place any limitations on what they are capable of doing,” said Nicole Hazel, director of vocational services.

“I think that we’re making strides in employment right now,” although “there’s an automatic assumption that it means you will have more safety issues and more liability and spend more time,” she said. “But … reasonable accommodations allow you to mitigate those concerns.”

Executives at Acadia Windows, Anders’ employer, initially had strong reservations about hiring workers with disabilities, said Wink Mather, the firm’s president and owner. Like many employers, they worried about safety.

In the dozen years since The Arc responded to a company help-wanted ad, Acadia has hired six workers through the organization.

The most recent Arc hire, Jessica Markle, not only has a developmental disability but is blind. To help Markle navigate the factory floor, a co-worker suggested placing sandpaper on the floor of the path she travels, which she can feel with her cane. The company also gave her a walkie-talkie she can use to alert people when she needs more supplies.

Hiring through The Arc has “made us a better company,” said Neill Christopher, vice president of manufacturing. “We didn’t set out to hire people with disabilities. We were looking for good workers. It’s a matter of having an open mind and the team-building to give it a try. They’re differently abled, but they’re great employees.”

All of the accommodations, such as the sandpaper and the walkie-talkie, have been “reasonable,” the standard required by the ADA, Christopher said. The Arc provides the workers with transportation and job coaches when they are first being trained.

John Kelly, assistant vice president of government affairs and public policy for SourceAmerica, a nonprofit that helps place job candidates with significant disabilities, said the ADA has helped open doors.

AbilityOne, a SourceAmerica program, has helped place 45,000 people with disabilities in jobs with federal contractors.

“One of the important things from the ADA was impacting mindsets and really framing disability as a natural part of human existence,” Kelly said.

Connie McClendon, an Iraq war veteran who served in the New Jersey National Guard for 17 years, began suffering from depression during her deployment in 2008 and 2009. Afterward, she developed anxiety and began having seizures.

“I couldn’t go back to the work I was used to doing, and I didn’t know what work I was capable of doing,” said McClendon, 44. “I was going into debt and had nothing to pay the bills or take care of my daughter. I was afraid to apply (for jobs) because I didn’t know what I could handle.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs and AbilityOne helped her get a job in 2011 at Fort Meade through a community-based nonprofit that has a federal logistics contract. Using skills learned in the National Guard, she was promoted after a year from a materials expediter to a supply technician, a job in which she helps process parts from computers and other equipment to be shipped to military installations.

“They’re aware of the different disorders that the employees have and how to help … so employees can do their jobs to the best of their abilities,” McClendon said. “There’s a lot of support at my job, not just from the management standpoint but from fellow co-workers.”

Kelly from SourceAmerica said stigma and misperceptions continue to be among the biggest barriers to placing candidates.

“We’ve talked to a lot of people who may have had a good phone screening, and they happen to be individuals utilizing a wheelchair or have a disability that’s obvious,” he said. “The whole tone … may change once they go in for an interview because (the employer) is uncomfortable or feels it may be difficult to accommodate.”

During a recent roundtable discussion on the ADA at the U.S. Labor Department in Washington, Secretary Thomas Perez urged employers to take the lead in tapping into the labor pool of workers with disabilities.

“We need to do a better job of preparing young people for life of employment rather than a life of public support,” Perez said.

He was joined by former Sen. Tom Harkin, an architect of the ADA, who was inspired by his brother, Frank, who was deaf.

“His horizons were limited,” said Harkin, recalling how in the 1950s Frank Harkin was given the choice of three jobs, baker, cobbler or printer’s assistant, none of which interested him. Eventually, the owner of a small manufacturing plant gave him a chance to do something he enjoyed, working with machinery.

In the past 25 years, Harkin said, “we’ve broken down a lot of barriers, society has changed, but we’ve got to commit ourselves to next 25 years, that’s got to be jobs.”

McClendon, the Iraq veteran, said she hopes her own employment will raise awareness that people with disabilities can be employed.

“People look at a person’s disability and not their ability,” she said. “That’s something we need to get past.”

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