Creating an accessible environment

by Gail Bereola

Disability is not the experience of a minority of Americans. The reality is that most Americans will experience a disability at some point in their lives -- either themselves or within their families.

That is why creating an accessible, inclusive society and work environment is important for all of us.

I applaud the California law firms who recently pledged their commitment to the State Bar's policy supporting the spirit of the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act.

As a result of this commitment, a message is being sent loud and clear that persons with disabilities will not be limited or shut out, but included and accommodated so that they may perform their jobs with quality and excellence.

In August 1989, four days shy of my 35th birthday, I was vacationing in Mexico and was involved in a small airplane accident in the desert.

I suffered multiple internal injuries and a spinal cord injury that left me paralyzed below the waist.

Before my accident, I was very healthy and loved aerobics, jogging, running, dancing and practicing law.

After my accident, my self-esteem plummeted and I saw myself as a cripple and an invalid. To borrow a phrase from my daughter, who is 3 years old, "I didn't like it!"

It never occurred to me that because I became disabled I might not be able to secure gainful employment due to societal attitudinal barriers based on ignorance.

How could I know that I could not climb stairs in my wheelchair? Or that bathroom doors would be too heavy for me to open or the stalls too narrow for my wheelchair?

I was totally ignorant and only became aware of the disability experience when I became disabled.

Lawyers and legal professionals with disabilities want to work. And when they work, the economy benefits and our society is enriched. However, the overriding message sent to people with disabilities through our public policies is that they are not expected to work.

In fact, more than 95 percent of federal funds spent on people with disabilities are targeted for supporting dependency. Little is spent helping them pursue and maintain employment.

Focusing on the disability rather than the ability has left many employment opportunities unrealized.

Polls conducted reveal that two-thirds of working age people with disabilities are not employed. Yet, of those not working, 66-79 percent say they want to work.

Data from the 1995 Current Population Survey of the U.S. Bureau of the Census indicates that only 28 percent of the 16.8 million working age non-institutionalized Americans with work disabilities were employed.

The good news is that things are changing. In the private sector, polls indicate that employers support the employment of people with disabilities and experience them as good employees.

A 1995 poll of 300 CEOs and human resources managers in Fortune 500 companies found that 73 percent of the top industries across the country are currently hiring people with disabilities. Another poll showed very little increase in costs of accommodation.

I believe that legal professionals with disabilities and chronic medical conditions want to be employed, educated, participating, tax-paying citizens contributing to the social fabric of American life.

The State Bar's pledge program is an investment in those goals and an investment in independence, integration and full participation for our colleagues in the legal profession with disabilities.

In the long run, society's investments in the productivity and mainstream participation of people with disabilities are essential to achieving a maximally productive society.