This is the story of two women who are bringing hope to unemployed people with disabilities nationwide. Both women have fought personal determined battles with disability, both have experienced the pain of discrimination, and both have developed inner strength through adversity. Both women are champions of a person's right to work based on ability, not disability.
REBECCA "BECKY" OGLE
Although she has acquired a reputation as a fighter who never retreats, Rebecca Ogle, the executive director of the Presidential Task Force on Employment of Adults with Disabilities, isn't just fighting for herself -she is hoisting the battle flag for the approximately 54 million people with disabilities in this country.
Ogle and the Task Force she heads are charged with removing the obstacles that prevent adults with disabilities from working -a daunting task, no doubt, in a climate where many employers consider it a liability to hire people with disabilities. When Ogle was appointed executive director of the Task Force in 1998, Secretary of Labor Alexis M. Herman described her as a terrific manager, coalition-builder, and strategist. " The President charged this Task Force with a plain and direct mission, " Herman said. " To design a national strategy to make equality of opportunity, full participation, inclusion, and economic self-sufficiency realities for all 30 million working age Americans with disabilities. Becky Ogle will help us make that happen."
To accomplish these goals, Ogle has at times had to roll over a few toes. Because she is a double leg amputee and uses a wheelchair, she's been called " Hell on Wheels " by those who don't like her tenacity and the General Patton of the disability movement by those who do. She, however, insists that she is just being herself. A petite blond with a gentle demeanor and a trace of an East Tennessee accent from childhood, she is in fact difficult to imagine as either " Hell on Wheels " or General Patton. However, she is known for her high energy level, persistence, and outspokenness; and when certain subjects are broached, one can almost see her sprouting bristles.
Growing up with a disability
Born in 1956 in Knoxville, Tennessee, with spina bifida, a birth defect in the spinal column, Ogle considers growing up with spina bifida the most difficult part of her life. In those days, she says, " the school systems were pretty much ineffective and inadequate. " Because the schools didn't know how to handle someone with a disability, Ogle was unhappy at school and always felt that she needed to be fixed. " My greatest joy was when I finally accepted that I was a person with a disability and that I was okay, " she says. Years later, as a student at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Ogle majored in social work, but the courses she took were mostly determined by whether or not they were accessible to her. Getting up and down stairs and to and from distant and inaccessible rest rooms were always problems.
Although schools have improved, she says, " We still have a long way to go to ensure that children with disabilities receive an appropriate education. " Remembering her own experiences in the school system, she finds a reason for her life's work: " My own experiences of being railroaded shaped what I do today, " she asserts. Her father was a lawyer, and her mother, she says, was a great advocate and really ahead of her time. " I learned my advocacy from her, " she says.
The beginning of a career in advocacy Ogle also got some training in the field during the battle to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). When she began her political career in Washington, D. C. , in 1989 as the director of governmental affairs and advocacy for the Spina Bifida Association of America, many people in Washington were lobbying for the passage of the ADA, and Ogle quickly joined the struggle. " I was able to immediately enter into a community of likeminded individuals who were working on the most important civil rights statute in our history, " she says. " And it was the first time that I had ever been around other people with disabilities. I immediately felt connected and felt like I had arrived somewhere that I had always been searching for. " The ADA, which was passed in 1990, prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, transportation, telecommunications, public accommodations, and housing. " It was the most comprehensive civil rights statute ever passed in the world, " Ogle says.
Since leaving the Spina Bifida Association of America and before being named the executive director of the Presidential Task Force on Employment of Adults with Disabilities in 1998, Ogle worked with the 1992 and 1996 Clinton-Gore campaigns, headed Project: AccessAbility at the National Association for Medical Equipment Services, did consulting work, and headed a coalition to raise lifetime insurance caps.
An ongoing struggle
And over the years, she has had to return several times to the fight for the ADA. Because the law's definition of who can be considered disabled is controversial, it has been criticized and challenged on several occasions. Businesses have spent billions of dollars making themselves ADA-compliant, and several efforts have been made -in Congress and in the courts -to weaken the law's influence.
Recently, the U. S. Supreme Court denied the ADA's protection for people with physical disabilities that are treatable with medication or devices like glasses or hearing aids. "It was a horrible decision, "Ogle contends. "It's very dangerous -especially for amputees, people with epilepsy, or people with psychiatric disabilities -that the law would say that if you can take a pill that mitigates your disability then you're no longer a person with a disability and no longer protected under the ADA. We know that these individuals continue to experience discrimination every day in their lives, and pills aren't the answer. Pills don't do away with the discrimination."
The new president is also likely to have significant influence on the ADA and other disability issues, Ogle says. "Right now in Congress we have a pending legislation called the 90-day notification act, which is the Clint Eastwood issue," she explains. This act would prevent people from suing businesses violating the ADA until defendants are given 90 days to comply with the law, and the next president might have the opportunity to sign it or veto it. Moreover, he will probably have the opportunity to appoint three Supreme Court justices who could uphold or overturn many ADA civil rights protections for people with disabilities.
President Bill Clinton appointed Ogle to her position in 1998, and she has worked closely with him and Vice President Al Gore over the last 2-1/2 years. "We have made over 30 recommendations to the president and vice president," Ogle says, "all of which have been accepted and implemented, with the exception of the ones that took Congressional action * with the exception of one."
She denies that it is difficult to get things done in Washington, D.C., saying that it is not difficult to get things done when the President, the Vice President, and the Cabinet support her. However, she concedes that getting things done in Congress is not as easy.
A few of the things the Task Force recommended were laws to ensure training, jobs, and continued medical insurance for those with disabilities who become employed; the encouragement of small business ownership for the disabled, and the establishment of an interagency youth-to-work initiative.
One of the greatest accomplishments of the Task Force, Ogle says, has been the establishment of an office of disability policy in the Department of Labor. "The ADA levels the playing field," she says, but it doesn't guarantee anyone a top paying job or anything more than other people. Making the Department of Labor, the voice of the American worker, inclusive of workers with disabilities will help open up more possibilities for advancement." If we're truly committed to the goals and principles outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act, we -and I'm talking about the disability community too -will stop creating these separate programs for people with disabilities, and we will change our focus to ensure that the mainstream programs at the Department of Labor and every other department at the federal level is serving people with disabilities."
A long way to go
Although the Task Force has accomplished many of its goals, Ogle doesn't feel that it is time to rest yet. The entrance of people with disabilities into the mainstream of society will require a lot more work, she says, and awareness of what people with disabilities face is an important prerequisite to that.
Because some people with disabilities can work, excel in sports, and accomplish amazing things in their lives, it does not mean that they should no longer be considered people with disabilities, she argues. They might still be discriminated against and have problems getting access to buildings, rest rooms, and transportation. I'm discriminated against " all of the time, " she asserts. But, in most cases, she doesn't feel that it is done intentionally. It's usually done out of ignorance, she says, especially when individuals are doing it. However, with businesses, she sees it differently, and the question brings out her bristles. " These businesses that refuse to comply with the ADA, that's intentional, " she says. " There's nothing subtle about that. There's just this, 'come sue me type of attitude,' and that pisses me off. " And it's not wise to make her angry. She has already sued a convenience store chain because some of its locations were not accessible for people with disabilities.
On the economic and political front
The establishment of economic self-sufficiency for people with disabilities through education and employment is at the heart of Ogle's strategy to bring them into the mainstream and into a better life. "If they depend on government assistance, they are going to live at or near the poverty level," Ogle says. "People with disabilities want more, and they're demanding more. They're demanding that they have access to the American Dream."
And it is perhaps an opportune time for them to get it. The nation is experiencing record low unemployment and a strong economy. Businesses are not able to find employees to fill the available jobs. At the same time, large numbers of people with disabilities are unemployed and have not been given a chance to prove themselves as employees. " All people have value, " Ogle says. " All can contribute when supports and accommodations are provided. We cannot afford to waste the potential of any person in our nation."
However, she realizes that before businesses will hire them, " we've got to make sure that people with disabilities are competitive in today's job market. " That means appropriate training and adequate transportation to and from work. " Businesses can't afford to hire people who are not competent, and I wouldn't expect them to, " she emphasizes. Most importantly, Ogle says, " We've got to change the way that people with disabilities think about themselves. Attitudinal barriers are the biggest barriers for people with disabilities, within both themselves and in soci, ety. We need to get very politically savvy in our movement and do a better job of outreach. " Although " people with disabilities in general don't have the economic clout to buy their way into the political process, they do buy their way in by their numbers and by their commitment. " Approximately 30 million individuals between the ages of 18 and 64 have disabilities, she says, and that is a significant number if it is used wisely in the struggle for inclusion -a struggle that Ogle, well-known for her tireless efforts for the disabled community, appears more than willing to continue.
To contact Rebecca Ogle, write PTFEAD, 200 Constitution Avenue, NW, Room S-2220, Washington, D. C. 20120 or call 202/693-4939. Web site: www.dol.gov
She's been hailed as a "Hero for Today" by Reader's Digest magazine and selected by President Clinton as the 1999 " President's Award Winner " for her work in employing people with disabilities. Yet Joyce Bender has had her share of personal struggles. Misdiagnosed by doctors in her 20s, for over a decade Bender was led to believe that her reoccurring seizures and loss of consciousness were "flu symptoms." It wasn't until 1984 that Bender's "mystery illness" was diagnosed as epilepsy, a seizure disorder. She was buying a Diet Coke during an intermission of the movie Amadeus when she had a violent seizure and hit the floor so hard she fractured her skull, causing a cerebral hemorrhage and fracturing the bones in her right ear. A man stepped out of the crowd saying, " I'm a doctor, I can help. I know what's wrong with her. " Bender is convinced the man was an angel because he stayed with her until the paramedics came and then vanished. " For years I have tried to locate him -to thank him for saving my life but I've never been able to find him. "
Doctors recommended immediate brain surgery, warning her husband and family members that she might end up blind, paralyzed, and even mentally impaired. Bender not only survived but after two months of therapy, she returned to work at Bender and Associates, an executive search firm where she was one of three partners.
The incident left her with a 40 percent hearing loss in one ear and vivid memories of the people she had met while in rehabilitation. " I realized how fortunate I was to have my own company to return to, and I couldn't shake the images of those less fortunate. If they recovered, who would hire them?" she wondered.
A new direction
Those thoughts and her own brush with disability left Bender with a passion to help people with disabilities. " Until you have competitive employment, you will never be free in this country, " she says. " You cannot buy a car, get an apartment, go on vacation, do all the things that people with jobs take for granted. But when you give a person a chance, you're giving them a chance to change their entire life. "
When she eventually returned to work, Bender heard about the Institute of Advanced Technology (IAT) in Pittsburgh, a school that trains people with disabilities to become computer programmers. " The problem was that after the training, no one would hire them, " Bender says. " So I decided to get involved and use my executive search firm to find jobs for people with disabilities. "
At first, Bender tried to place students on her own. Then she founded a group effort called " Partners in Placement " through which she tried to rally other executives to hire and place people with disabilities. " I would call companies and say, 'I know you have a senior-level opening, and if you'll consider hiring a junior-level person, I'll waive my fee.'" Bender placed 15 to 20 people with disabilities using this approach, usually to the same two companies. Eight years passed and Bender realized that she wasn't seeing the progress she had hoped for. " Very few companies were willing to take a chance, " Bender remarks. " Unfortunately, that's still true today. "
Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was an exception. The company believed in the project and made a commitment to Bender to place qualified people with disabilities in jobs at Highmark. John Brouse, CEO of Highmark explains:" We are delighted to be in a position to offer important, challenging positions to people with disabilities. Not only has being in the vanguard of hiring people with disabilities been the right thing to do -it has been the intelligent, business thing to do!These individuals are productive, dependable, loyal and promotable. They are one of our greatest assets, bar none. "
Hiring people with disabilities
Encouraged by Highmark's commitment to partner with her, Bender decided to take the risk and hire people with disabilities and lease them out to businesses. To do this she would start a second company -a " for-profit " computer consulting firm that would train people with disabilities and place them in jobs. Bender decided on a " for-profit " rather than " nonprofit " company, she says, because " people with disabilities should have the same chance as people without disabilities to compete for raises and bonuses that a profitable company can offer. " Today, 90 percent of her staff is people with disabilities. Bender hires them as computer consultants, and they work with her for six to nine months before going to another company. They all have full benefits coverage. Some stay with her firm indefinitely; others move on to other jobs.
Prospective employees, however, must have the necessary education and skills, Bender stresses. " I'm not hiring these people because they have disabilities. They are qualified people who just happen to have a disability. "
One such worker is Paul Julian, a left below knee amputee, born in New Castle, Pennsylvania. Julian met Bender after he lost his leg in a motorcycle accident in 1990. " I was working in Columbus, Ohio, as a machinist before the accident and had to change careers after I lost my leg, " Julian says. " I had an opportunity to go to IAT for computer training, and afterwards, I met Joyce Bender, she hired me, and I went to work at BCS. " Later, Julian was placed in a job at Highmark, a move he is very grateful for. " I needed to work, so I moved back to New Castle. Highmark is a great place to work. They are a flexible company, and most importantly, they look at me as an asset. "
Barriers to progress
Bender says two barriers exist toward people with disabilities: attitude and fear. " Education needs to be inward, because it's still socially acceptable to make remarks about people with disabilities, " she says, adding that she is frequently the brunt of such remarks. " Much like racism, it's an attitude of viewing people with disabilities as inferior. 'Let's hire one of those people; let's do them a favor,'some people say. This is pity, and it's an attitude that leads to unemployment. "
Fear is caused by ignorance, " Bender continues. " People are often uncomfortable around people with disabilities; they don't want to face it, talk about it or be around it. I always tell people to remember that this is the only protected class group that any of us can join at any time. "
Myths are responsible for many misconceptions about people with disabilities, Bender notes. Myths such as it costs more to provide medical insurance for people with disabilities and they will have a higher level of absenteeism. " I have employees with a variety of disabilities who have not missed a day of work, other of working age who are unemployed in this country. untapped labor pool of people who want to work. Employers are missing the added productivity to their workforce by hiring people with this kind of work ethic. enters the workforce, there is a change in the way people think. " Today, at 47, Bender's health is good. Her illness is controlled by medication, and she has not had a seizure in over six years. Bender Consulting Services is well on its way to becoming a national model or placing information technology professionals with disabilities. Though she realizes that convincing employers to open their doors to people with disabilities will be an uphill battle, she will continue to fight. "
Don't ever think that one person can't make a difference, " she says. " When I won the President's Award from President Clinton, it was the greatest honor I've ever received. come that you don't have to go all the way to the White House to get an award for employing people with disabilities. I hope someday people will do it because it's the right thing to do. "
Bender Consulting Services, Inc., is affiliated with Bender and Associates International, Inc. , providing consulting in information technology and creating employment opportunities for all people with abilities. For more information or to check job postings, go to the Web site: www.benderconsult.com