|ENABLING THE DISABLED|
December 30, 1999
CHER REITH: Good morning, thank you for calling P.C. Banking, this is Cher, how may I help you.
MIKE JAMES: Cher Reith is a customer service representative at Washington Mutual, a national bank with branches in 38 states. She is blind. But customers calling for help would never know.
CHER REITH: I notice you've got two cards here. Mr. Sells. Which card
would you like to be your access card to P.C. Banking, your ATM, your
regular debt card or your ATM. Debit card?
VOICE SYNTHESIZER: C.C. Colon, a special, blank, M.B.S.G. Colon, we now have something brand-new and exciting for us here in P.C. Banking, period.
CHER REITH: I have access to the information that I need in order to do my job effectively. You know, it's the whole idea of knowledge is power, and if you don't know or if you can't access the basic information, you're not going to be able service a customer very well, and you're not going to be able to do your job.
MIKE JAMES: Christina Phillips, another Washington mutual banker, is deaf, but she works full-time, taking calls from deaf customers by using a TTY Teletypewriter.
CHRISTINIA PHILIPS, Washington Mutual Banker: This is my life -- 15 years of my life, because I can't talk on the phone. I can read lips, but I can't hear on the phone. So I use TTY every day, on the phone calls.
MIKE JAMES: Reith and Phillips at Washington Mutual are among the many disabled workers taking advantage of dramatic changes in the workplace. A powerful economy, fierce competition for good workers, and new technology are all combining to give disabled Americans new opportunities. On the job, attitudes are changing. The competition in this economy for good employees forced Washington Mutual to expand its labor pool several years ago to recruit the disabled, people like Cher Reith and Christina Phillips. The bank did so at first with reluctance.
VICKI WINN: I think I was one of those that found it nearly impossible for someone who, say, is blind to do the same job that a banker who's not visually impaired could do.
MIKE JAMES: But Washington Mutual is now an enthusiastic recruiter of disabled workers. Vicki Winn, vice president for customer services, says they're dependable, work hard, and are less likely to leave for some other employment. The turnover rate for all employees is 30%; for disabled workers it's less than 10%. And the average cost of accommodations for a disabled worker is less than $500.
VICKI WINN: And what we've found is the first couple of folks that we hired, we weren't required to make any accommodations in order to bring them on and have them be successful. The first person was a wheelchair user; they were mobility impaired, and other than making sure that we placed them in a location that was easy to get to, there were no expenditures on our part.
MIKE JAMES: In the new high-tech economy at places like Microsoft, what matters is intellect, not physical ability. The company made that clear to Greg Smith five years ago when it decided to bring him in from Stanford for an interview.
GREG SMITH: They would say, "just give us a list of the equipment you need, give us a list of the accommodations that you need from... You know, does somebody need to fly up here with you? And we'll just take care of it."
CHRIS WILLIAMS: The thing that matters to us is getting intellectual capacity, intellectual pieces of value from people's heads onto computer disks, and that special nature of our business, being so intellectual, is very amenable to people with disabilities, where the work is not physical, the work is about the smarts and the brain power that they bring to the problem.
GREG SMITH: I work with a lot of people here, some of whom I never even meet, and those people don't know I'm in a wheelchair. Some of them know, and some of them don't. Even the ones that do know don't care because it doesn't affect, affect the way I perform my duties.
MIKE JAMES: Smith performs because technology gives him new ways to communicate, to get his work into the computer. Here he's using a head mouse, wrapped around his head like earphones. As he shifts position, a black box on the monitor follows every move.
GREG SMITH: So, the box on the top of the screen is watching my head movements. So as I move my head around, the mouse cursor follows. And then to click this white tube, I puff into it. Just like that, and that performs the mouse click.
SPOKESMAN: Why don't you put in two or three sentences of dictation just about what you do here at Microsoft.
MIKE JAMES: Now Smith is learning to use new voice recognition technology that allows him to control a computer and write e-mail or other documents by simply talking.
GREG SMITH: Matt comma, I already talked to Ron about the cash server prototype, period.
MIKE JAMES: This frees Greg Smith from his most difficult task now, picking out documents a key at a time with an eraser extender from his right hand. The change is important because this work is about collaboration and communication, and that means writing. Some breakthroughs begin simply because companies hired disabled workers. When Bill Graham, deaf since his teenage years, took a job with the Encarta C.D.-Rom Encyclopedia, he quickly noticed a huge gap in the program.
BILL GRAHAM: I'd worked on encyclopedias for 18 years, but not multimedia encyclopedias. So coming here was a very new experience for me, and immediately when I got into my job, I saw there was a problem, that there was a lot of audio clips in the encyclopedia, but I couldn't understand them.
MIKE JAMES: If Bill couldn't hear them, neither could anyone else deaf or hard of hearing. That experience was the inspiration behind closed captioning on all the audio contents of the Encarta Encyclopedia, from the chirp of crickets to the words of Dr. Martin Luther King.
DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING: I have a dream...
DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING: That my four little children...
MIKE JAMES: Workers like Graham believe all these changes are closing the gap, making the workplace more accessible than ever for the disabled.
CHER REITH: I think what they've seen is that we really are capable, if we're given the tools and the opportunity to show that, yes, we are capable, we do know what's important, we know how to give good service, and that if we're just allowed the opportunity to do so, we can.
SPOKESMAN: Well, what is a reasonable accommodation? It's a removal of a workplace- created barrier.
MIKE JAMES: In employer workshops like this one in Seattle businesses are learning about the Americans With Disabilities Act and finding their way through the new interpretations, definitions, and litigation over disabilities in the workplace.
SPOKESMAN: You got to remove workplace barriers for somebody with a disability who needs it unless it cautions an undue hardship.
MIKE JAMES: But even though there is more clarity now about hiring and firing the disabled, 60% of the disabled Americans who want to work are still unemployed. David Fram of the America Law Institute Project on Disability.
DAVID FRAM: It's hard to say that it's opened a huge number of doors because the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is still very high, but there is also always kinds of reasons for why that unemployment rate is high. I mean, there are other laws that might still need changing in order to encourage people to go back to work without losing benefits. So, there is reasons why it may not be having a huge impact on opening doors. But what I think it is doing is it's changing attitudes in the workplace. It's showing players that people with disabilities can do jobs a different way.
MIKE JAMES: Severe disability is still a road block for many Americans. Listen to this conversation in the living room of Sharon and Allen King. It happens a letter at a time. Sharon uses her thumb and Allen signals with Morse Code using his left foot. Then their personal synthesizers called "liberators" turn those signals into speech.
SHARON KING: I love talking to people and making them understand what I'm telling them and it was frustrated not being able to communicate to people. The talking quickens Allen's search for a steady job. His hearing is sharp; he's a high school graduate with some community college credits, but since birth, Allen has been severely disabled by cerebral palsy. So far, his search for work keeps hitting a dead end.
ALLEN KING: I am getting little except people saying sorry, no job. I really want to work.
MIKE JAMES: Even at a time of changing attitudes in the work place, Allen King's physical condition is too great a barrier for most employers. They don't see him, he says, -- only the wheel chair.
ALLEN KING: I think why I can't a find, they look at me, see the wheel chair and see me not as a real person.
MIKE JAMES: People who have known Allen King for years, friends like Jill Deatheridge at the United Cerebral Palsy Center, say Allen is really the ultimate test of employers' willingness to truly change the workplace.
JILL DEATHERIDGE: I mean, he is pounding the pavement. He has been for years -- years and years and years and years and years. Now the day when his pounding the pavement pays off and an employer says, you know, you are hired, that is the day that we know, aha, you know, we're getting somewhere.
MIKE JAMES: Allen King uses e-mail, an easier way to communicate, to make his own statement. "I want to feel part of the working world and pay taxes, instead of having to get tax money to live on. I want to be able to buy things and go on trips. I want to feel like I'm a man." In a "New York Times" poll this year nearly 90% of Americans describe themselves as positive about the economy and their lives. Allen King says disabled Americans just want the chance to say that too.