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Employees With Disabilities Strive for Equal Opportunities

By Elaine Wilson
Special to American Forces Press Service

FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas, Oct. 24, 2005 – Cecilia Johnson was the "new kid on the block" at her new job. It was 1984, and she had just entered civil service as a secretary at Kelly Air Force Base, Texas.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Cecilia Johnson, office automation assistant for the Army Medical Department and School's nursing science department, discusses class scheduling with co-worker Idline Williams. "I don't like limitations," Johnson said. "I might not get a job because I'm not the best qualified, but don't disqualify me because I have a disability. Just treat me like everyone else and let me do my job." Photo by Elaine Wilson

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

One day soon after she started, her boss approached her frazzled; he was coming up on a deadline and needed copies made quickly. Johnson immediately offered to take care of it. She was eager to prove herself, and the copier was just down the hall. But he took one look at her, particularly her wheelchair, and said, "I'll do it."

Johnson, as she had many times before in her life, had a choice - keep silent or take action. She chose the latter, and insisted on making the copies.

"He saw how fast I was," said Johnson, now an office automation assistant for the Army Medical Department and School's Department of Nursing Science here. "I had to earn his trust and prove that I didn't need a babysitter."

Johnson was born with spina bifida, a neural tube defect that can cause mobility impairments and varying degrees of neurological damage.

The biggest hurdle she's had to overcome in her 21-year career is battling against assumptions, Johnson said. "Don't assume because your co-worker can't move his arm that he can't type. He may have worked out a solution for himself. Just let him try; he may surprise you," she said.

Johnson's message is echoed in the many ceremonies and events held throughout National Disabilities Employment Awareness Month, a time every October dedicated to celebrating the accomplishments of individuals with disabilities and ensuring employment opportunities are available and accessible to them.

Glennis Ribblett, Fort Sam Houston's Individuals with Disabilities program manager, hopes to put the emphasis on awareness, not only for the month but also year-round.

"The more people are exposed to disabilities and understand how to relate to people with them, the better it will be for everyone in the workplace," Ribblett said. "Most problems I've seen can be prevented with education, awareness and good communication skills. Awareness is important because disabilities do not discriminate; they attack without regard to race, color or gender."

In her sensitivity training, Ribblett teaches people proper eye contact, verbal skills and body language. For example, "Don't say someone is disabled, say the person has a disability," she said. "It's a subtle difference, but with potential to cause bad feelings if expressed in the wrong way."

Ribblett has seen multiple problems resulting from communication gaps.

"I had a client who was losing his eyesight," Ribblett said. "He asked his supervisor for a bigger monitor. When the supervisor asked why he needed it, he only said he couldn't see the smaller monitor but didn't explain why. Not realizing it was due to a medical condition, the new monitor fell to the bottom of the supervisor's priority list. The employee felt slighted and ignored. They just needed to communicate."

Untimely delays in approving or denying reasonable accommodation requests, especially simple ones such as providing a monitor or raising a desk to fit a wheelchair, can cause an employer to be found in violation of the Rehabilitation Act.

"Reasonable accommodation is not special treatment," Ribblett said. "It's done to allow qualified employees an opportunity to perform the duties of the job at the same level as their co-workers. These requests must be dealt with quickly and with priority."

Johnson's supervisor, Col. Pat Patrician, said the key to good workplace relations is honesty.

"If you have a question about your employees' capabilities, just ask," said Patrician, nursing science department director. "Also, try to look at the workplace from their perspective. I didn't notice a lot of areas that lacked in accessibility until Cecilia came to work here."

Ribblett said another area that can cause potential problems is job interviews.

"It sometimes makes people nervous to interview someone with a disability if they have not had any previous exposure in communicating with persons with disabilities," she said. "The most important thing is to ensure the building is accessible. If it's not, and you don't have time to fix the problem, then do the interview somewhere else. If there is any doubt or concern, then ask for help."

As servicemembers with disabilities enter the work force in increasing numbers, Ribblett said knowledge and awareness bear even more importance.

"I've had an increase in sensitivity training requests," she said. "If people are unsure how to treat their co-worker or customer with a disability, they should seek guidance. I emphasize good communication skills and, above all, just be normal.

"Just like any other customer or new co-worker, look them in the eye and ask what they need. Offer a cup of coffee," Ribblett said. "Don't avoid the person out of fear or uncertainty. Dealing with an individual with a disability shouldn't be different than dealing with anyone else. They deserve the same opportunity to do a good job as everyone else."

(Elaine Wilson works in the Fort Sam Houston Public Affairs Office.)

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