Part of Pam Morrison’s job at MU’s Department of Physical Therapy is running errands. But because she travels by wheelchair, things like heavy doors and stairs can stand in the way.
Morrison has been steadily employed in the Columbia area since 1980, so she has learned how to get and keep her job through trial and error.
“I learned to call before interviews and ask about the best entrance,” Morrison said. “That seemed to put (employers) more at ease. When I got there, I asked to see the area where I’d be working and made sure I could use the bathrooms. I looked at interviews, even if I didn’t get hired, as a win-win situation.”
Today, Morrison will join area employers and MU students with disabilities in celebrating Disability Mentoring Day at a breakfast sponsored by MU’s PACE-IT project. PACE-IT stands for Preparing Avenues for Competitive Employment in Information Technology. Event planners hope students who attend will gain experience networking with employers and highlighting their abilities.
“Lots of people are qualified,” said Lee Henson, MU’s PACE-IT director and campus coordinator for the Americans with Disabilities Act. “To get the job is the hard part, but people with disabilities might have to work harder to keep it.”
The Americans with Disabilities Act defines disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. Employers are not required to hire people with disabilities, but under the ADA they must consider qualified applicants and provide “reasonable accommodations” for them once hired.
G. “Doss” Bhagvandoss, who has worked in MU’s learning lab for 22 years, had a stroke a little over a year ago and now uses a wheelchair. He said the environment outside the workplace is another consideration disabled people must make during a job search.
“Some people consider access as just a ramp, but access means providing normalcy for employees despite a physical challenge,” Doss said. “Access is the most important thing for enjoying life. A person shouldn’t miss anything.”
According to 2000 census data, about 14 percent of Boone County’s population between the ages of 21 and 64 had some form of disability. Sixty-one percent of people with disabilities were employed, compared to an 82.4 percent employment rate among those without disabilities.
MU is one of the largest employers in the area, with more than 10,000 people on its payroll. Karen Touzeau, assistant vice chancellor of human resources services, said that the university employs people with disabilities throughout departments on campus, but that no statistical records are kept because disability information is not used in the hiring process.
Although State Farm Insurance is not currently hiring, human resources representative Deidra Golphin said her company will attend today’s breakfast to encourage students to apply later. She said State Farm employs people with disabilities at all levels of the company and offers assistance whenever needed.
State Rep. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, is the first wheelchair user to be elected to the Missouri House of Representatives. He is now serving his fourth term in the state legislature and thinks he brings an element of diversity to the job. He would encourage students entering the work force to stress their abilities rather than any disabilities.
“In a lot of ways I’ve had an advantage,” Graham said. “I’ve gotten recognition from my colleagues. Now they look at what we could do to provide opportunity for people with disabilities instead of a caretaking role.”