Chaz Kellem beat the odds.
A graduate of City Charter High School, Downtown, Mr. Kellem went to Edinboro University of Pennsylvania where he studied sports administration, hoping to land a job with a major league team. Despite intense competition in his field, the 27-year-old is now working full time for the Pittsburgh Pirates as their manager of diversity initiatives.
“I’m very lucky and blessed,” he said.
Mr. Kellem is more lucky than he knows. The odds are long that as a man with a disability — he uses a manual wheelchair — he could find a job at all.
Less than one in five people with disabilities (19.2 percent) are even in the labor force, according to a first-ever study of the labor force characteristics of people with disabilities by the Bureau of Labor Statistics released this month. For people without disabilities, the labor force participation rate is 64.5 percent.
And, while it is always extra challenging to get a job if someone has a disability, this recession has been particularly unkind. In 2009, when the annual unemployment rate for people without disabilities was 9 percent, the rate for people who have disabilities was 14.5 percent.
For people with disabilities, finding a job is hard and finding a full-time job is harder. The bureau found that a full third of the people with disabilities were working part time, while just a fifth of people who are not disabled work part time.
The bureau’s findings didn’t surprise anyone involved in the community of people with disabilities.
Part of the problem in achieving higher employment levels in the disabled community goes right to a problem that has plagued the entire nation: health insurance.
“They are stuck in this disability benefit world,” said Andrew J. Imparato, the president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities in Washington, D.C.
He explained that the disabled community was hardly a monolith — instead it encompasses a huge population of people with physical, developmental and psychiatric disabilities. Their needs are as varied as they are.
However, in many cases, particularly for people with physical disabilities, their cost for health care exceeds what they could earn at a job. And many jobs don’t provide the level of health benefits a person with a disability could receive through Medicare or Medicaid.
“We need to establish as a national policy that you are not going to be worse off because you took a job,” Mr. Imparato said.
“We’re always fighting the system. Whether it is SSI [Supplemental Security Income] or SSDI [Social Security Disability Insurance], we’re stuck,” said Josie Badger, 26, of Ross.
Ms. Badger has muscular dystrophy. She uses a powered wheelchair, breathes with the assistance of a ventilator and has a service dog and attendants who help with her daily routine. She is studying for a doctorate in health care ethics at Duquesne University and works part time for the Allegheny County Health Department. She already has a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling from the University of Pittsburgh.
If she took a full-time job or got married, she would lose the health insurance benefits she receives through her parents’ insurer.
If it weren’t for the issue of health insurance, she said, more employers would open their doors to workers with disabilities.
“It’s not the employers; it’s the red tape that’s keeping people with disabilities from getting jobs,” she said.
Mr. Imparato and Ms. Badger agreed people with disabilities bring experiences to industry that other people do not. Mr. Imparato, who has bipolar disorder, said job seekers should be upfront about their disability and what it can bring to their employment in terms of experience.
Rachel Kallem, 25, of Greenfield, calls it “disability pride.”
She said she now knows not to walk into a job interview and announce that she has bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but she doesn’t shy away from it either.
Some companies have developed a reputation for a commitment to the employment of people with disabilities, including Highmark and Bayer Corp.
Bayer has created a one-year jobs program in which people with disabilities gain experience and feedback while Bayer gets workers whom the company has found to be extremely dedicated to the corporation.
Bryan Iams, a spokesman for the company, said Bayer started the program, in part, to fill a need in the information technology division of the corporation where there is a high turnover rate. Now it has expanded to other areas.
People in the program “bring that level of dedication and commitment and interest that you really can’t easily find; and when we do find it, it’s really valuable to the team and the company,” he said.
But people with disabilities face challenges that others may not even consider.
For Steve Kohut, 44, of Brentwood, part of the impediment to finding a job is being sure he will be able to make the commute in bad weather.
Mr. Kohut has muscular dystrophy and stopped working eight years ago after a series of falls.
“After the falls, I had to move home with my mom and dad,” he said.
Now he has a battery-powered wheelchair, but he is not sure he will be able to make it across the back lawn when it gets too snowy or muddy to get to the car.
Mr. Kellem has similar problems. He needs help moving boxes for work and has to take extra time in the snow. But he said in the community affairs department of the Pittsburgh Pirates where he landed against so many odds, he has found not just a job but a supportive home.