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Starkloff initiative aims to help people with disabilities get paychecks, not pity

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon Sept. 16, 2009 - Six years after a motorcycle accident rendered Steve Foelsch a quadriplegic, the former MoDOT highway worker made a decision to become independent. He left his parents' care to pursue an education at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

In 2004, after earning a bachelor's degree in history, a master's in education and two teaching certifications, Foelsch, now 44, sent resumes to the principals of every St. Louis city high school. Several responded immediately, anxious to hire such a qualified candidate. Setting up the first interview by phone, Foelsch inquired about the location of the wheelchair ramp.

"You could hear a tangible change in the conversation, and he said, 'You need to go through human resources,'" Foelsch recalled. "I thought, 'Five seconds ago you were really desperately trying to get a hold of me and wanting me to come down and talk to you, and when I ask you where the wheelchair ramp is, you want me to go through different channels.'"

Substitute teaching was all HR had to offer, accompanied by what he viewed as a cover-up explanation about concern for his safety. Because Foelsh hadn't saved the earlier phone messages in which principals clamored to interview him, and because he needed the money, he didn't fight the decision. For over a year, he substitute-taught, making a fraction of what he would have earned as a full time teacher with a master's.

Discrimination is a chief reason that unemployment among people with disabilities in the U.S. is 16.9 percent -- nearly twice the 9.7 percent rate of the general population -- according to longtime St. Louis disabilities rights crusader Max Starkloff. If discouraged job-seekers with disabilities were counted in the official rate, it would be many times higher, Starkloff said, blaming persistent, antiquated attitudes.

"We still have a problem with the way society perceives people with disabilities. They think, 'Oh, this poor, pathetic person'," Starkloff said.

Educating Others Is Key

To change such negative perceptions, the Starkloff Disabilities Institute has an $8 million plan tentatively called the Messaging Project. While SDI hopes to have the money within four years, achieving the initiative's mission will take much longer.

"It's a long-term project," said Starkloff, who previously founded Paraquad, an organization dedicated to better lives for people with disabilities, while in a nursing home following a 1959 car accident in which he became a quadriplegic.

Despite the timing, it wasn't the economy that inspired this drive, Starkloff said, but a mounting frustration over how little progress has been made in his 45 years of advocacy. The starting point is getting people to understand that the issue even exists in the face of the Americans with Disabilities Act and other advances.

"One of the problems is that people don't think there's a problem," said David Newburger, commissioner of the Office on the Disabled for St. Louis, who also provides services to the institute.

According to Newburger, three fears fuel employment discrimination against the disabled.

"There's an attitude of, 'I'm afraid of people with disabilities -- basically because I'm afraid I'm going to be one' -- then there's the attitude that people with disabilities cost more than the other people in the workforce and there's, 'If I have a person with a disability working with me in my work group, then they aren't going to be able to be productive and I'm going to have to pull a bigger share'," Newburger said.

While many human resources departments are working to get workers with disabilities hired, they're not the ones doing the hiring, Newburger and Starkloff said. A key component of the Messaging Project is educating the decision-makers: owners of small companies and middle managers of large firms. The endeavor will be similar to the institute's ongoing Disability Studies Initiative, in which Foelsch teaches Maryville University students that working with the disabled doesn't mean taking care of them, but helping them take charge of their own lives.

"Then they begin to see the person as a whole person, and once they do that, the whole person is much more able to get into an employment situation," Newburger said.

A Win-win Situation

Accountant Michael Goad, 46, who has significant cerebral palsy, said he "lucked out" when Patrick Brennan, chief fiscal officer for the city's Department of Human Services, hired him 10 years ago. Brennan, who feels like he's the lucky one, admits that, initially, he had his doubts.

"He couldn't speak well and he couldn't write well, and that's tough in any job much less an accounting job," Brennan said.

But after Goad created a new Excel system during the interview process, Brennan knew he had what it takes -- and more. Goad, now Brennan's "most dedicated employee," only needs a special keyboard and a headset as accommodations. A local agency paid for these items; small businesses can get tax credits up to $5,000 and tax deductions up to $15,000 for accommodations for which they pay. All employers get a tax credit of up to $2,400 in the first year they hire someone with disabilities.

"Look at the abilities someone has, not the disabilities," Brennan said he would tell a skeptical employer. That's a message the institute also wants to get across as it works to raise the money for its employment initiative. An anonymous donor has already contributed $1 million. Helping with the remaining fundraising is former Washington University Chancellor Bill Danforth, who calls himself a "great admirer" of Max Starkloff.

"We're always moving toward a more open and inclusive society," Danforth said. "That should definitely include the disabled."

Nancy Larson is a freelance writer in St. Louis. 

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.