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Census: Higher unemployment, lower wages for people with disabilities

Friday - 4/5/2013, 6:00am  ET

Grant Kelsey (Frederick News Post)
Grant Kelsey operates a TV camera at WHAG during a broadcast Thursday evening in Hagerstown. Kelsey had to overcome a learning disability to earn a certificate in television production at Frederick Community College to get his job. (Frederick News-Post/Graham Cullen)

Grant Kelsey overcame a learning disability to become a production assistant for WHAG-TV in Hagerstown.

The Frederick resident needs to repeat tasks to learn to do them independently, he said, and math can be especially difficult.

Despite those challenges, he was able to prepare for a job in his preferred field with support from his parents, teachers and advocacy groups.

Many people with similar disabilities are not so fortunate.

People with disabilities have higher rates of unemployment and earn lower average wages than the general population, according to the Census Bureau's American Community Survey.

The 2011 unemployment rate was nearly 15 percent for people with disabilities in Frederick County, according to ACS data. The general unemployment rate in the county averaged 6 percent, according to the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

There are nearly 5,800 workers with disabilities in Frederick County, making up about 5 percent of the workforce.

The sluggish economy is a major employment obstacle for everyone, including people with disabilities, said Adele Connolly, director of the Division of Rehabilitative Services in Western Maryland.

It can also be more difficult for people with disabilities to get the basic work experience that can lead to a career, Connolly said. And in some cases, the need for accommodations makes finding a job challenging.

Kelsey does not need special accommodations at WHAG, but he did need tutoring and extra time on tests to earn his certificate in television production at Frederick Community College.

His parents and teachers helped him review lessons repeatedly. Without that, he might not have earned his certificate, he said.

"It was a struggle," said Ron Kelsey, his father. "There was blood and sweat ... many a midnight night getting him ready for quizzes."

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By the numbers

  • 2,077 workers in Frederick County have a hearing difficulty

  • 807 have a vision difficulty

  • 1,526 have a cognitive difficulty

  • 2,282 have an ambulatory difficulty

  • 520 have a self-care difficulty

  • 873 have an independent living difficulty

Source: 2009-2011 American Community Survey 3-Year Estimates

Connolly's agency provided Kelsey with an audio recorder to replay lectures. With a grant from the Maryland Developmental Disabilities Administration, his family hired a skills educator from the Arc of Frederick County.

His skills educator spends five hours a week helping Kelsey practice basic life skills, such as buying items and doing math and reading. This has helped him gain the independence to be part of the workforce.

Like many people with disabilities, Kelsey does not make a lot of money. He is paid minimum wage, $7.25 per hour.

But he is a 25-year- old recent college graduate at the start of his career, a time when many people work for low wages. He sees the production assistant job as a foot in the door.

"My goal is to have a good career in any level of television production -- camera or crewman," Kelsey said.

In Frederick County, people with disabilities earned an average of $30,480 in 2011. The general population earned $41,934 on average.

Despite the numbers, things are improving for people with disabilities who want to work, Connolly said.

Employers are more understanding of special needs and more willing to make accommodations than in the past, she said.

Gregory Suchanek, Kelsey's boss, said he had no qualms about hiring someone with a disability.

"I did realize that he thinks a bit differently. ... I thought it would jump-start a career for him and benefit him in the long run," he said.

Suchanek said he appreciates Kelsey's precise approach, focused thinking and work ethic.

Kelsey has helped create awareness about people with disabilities as president of Working Together Frederick County and a member of the board of directors for the Arc of Frederick County.

He has spoken in classrooms across the county about how he overcame his personal challenges. Kelsey also informs the classes about resources available to students with disabilities.

In addition to increasing awareness, technology has made it easier for people with physical impairments accomplish a wider variety of tasks, Connolly said.

"We're getting folks that are more and more interested in hiring people with disabilities," she said, "They're getting someone who wants to work. ... These are people who don't want to be on benefits."