MARSHFIELD — The moment he dove through the waves off the coast of Nantucket on that August morning 16 years ago, Neil McGrath’s life changed forever.
The spot, where he had swum in deep water just a few hours earlier, had become deceptively shallow, and he hit his head on the packed sand, breaking his neck. McGrath, then a 22-year-old spending the summer surfing, soul-searching, and stocking shelves at Stop & Shop, was paralyzed from the chest down.
In a wheelchair ever since, with limited use of his arms, McGrath had a hard time finding permanent work. But recently, with the help of a program for disabled workers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, McGrath, now 38, landed his first full-time job — answering phone calls about insurance claims and benefits for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts.
He no longer receives Social Security disability insurance, and, for the first time, can support his wife and two daughters, the youngest born just a few weeks ago. “Having this feeling of purpose and ability to provide, it’s just so uplifting,” he said.
Nationwide, less than 20 percent of disabled adults have jobs, compared with nearly 70 percent of people without disabilities, according to the US Department of Labor. But as workplaces allow more employees to work from home and technology gives people with limited mobility, vision impairment, and other disabilities an increasing ability to work, people like McGrath are finding opportunities to earn a steady paycheck.
Companies also are expanding diversity initiatives to include disabled workers, tapping programs that seek to connect employers and such workers.
Work Without Limits, the UMass Medical School initiative that helped McGrath find a job, was formed in 2009 in partnership with the state. Along with holding job training and career fairs, the program forms a network of employers that want to hire people with disabilities and educates them about what that entails.
Disabled people face many obstacles when it comes to finding work, said Kathy Petkauskos, senior program director at Work Without Limits. Transportation is one challenge. Navigating changes to benefits such as Social Security, food stamps, and public housing as they earn money is another. Perhaps the greatest is finding employers open to hiring the disabled.
Employers often balk because of concerns about the expense of accommodating workers with special needs, Petkauskos said, but the average cost is usually less than $500. Telecommuting and other flexible work arrangements are ways that employers can bring disabled workers onto their payrolls.
“The time is right to really turn up the dial in these flexible work environments,” she said. “It’s really kind of the next wave of diversity for these companies.”
In Massachusetts, 9 percent of people from age 18 to 64 have a disability, according to the US Census’s 2012 American Community Survey. The median income for disabled workers 16 and older in the state is $21,000, compared with $37,000 for people without disabilities; nearly a quarter of disabled workers live below the poverty line.
When McGrath returned to his parents’ home in Marshfield after 80 days in the hospital, he had no college degree and little work experience. He spent several years recovering — gaining some movement in his arms and legs, playing wheelchair rugby, and learning how to operate a handcycle. He got to the point where he could drive.
“It was a lot of dark, lonely times,” said McGrath, who had been studying jazz guitar before the accident. “It was very difficult coping with being on the cusp of adulthood and then suddenly being as dependent as a newborn baby.”
He went back to school part time, earning a degree in philosophy at Bridgewater State University, and found a few part-time administrative and tutoring jobs. One employer wouldn’t allow McGrath to adjust his schedule to deal with health issues related to sitting in his wheelchair for long stretches, so he left.
Then the recession took hold, and more than 200 job applications netted only a handful of interviews, including one call center manager who McGrath sensed was reluctant to hire him because of his disability.
McGrath earned a certificate in medical billing and applied for a job at Blue Cross but didn’t hear anything for months. Then he connected with Work Without Limits, which includes Blue Cross Blue Shield as one of its corporate sponsors. Soon he had an interview.
McGrath started work at Blue Cross in the fall and his experience has been markedly different than with earlier employers. An ergonomics specialist measured his wheelchair, and after that, every desk he sat at while training at the Quincy office fit him perfectly. All the doors, even on the bathrooms, can be opened with the push of a button.
“In order to effectively serve our 2.8 million members, we need to have a workforce that is representative of the 2.8 million members,” said Jason Robart, chief human resources officer, noting that Blue Cross has had an increased focus on diversity in the past few years. “It’s good business sense to ensure that we have as diverse a population as possible.”
Since April, McGrath has worked from home in Marshfield. His desk is set up in the bedroom of his parents’ basement apartment, where he lives with his family — a “corner office” that looks out onto the yard. He types with his right thumb and left index finger, the keyboard resting on his lap, and answers calls wearing a headset.
It’s a small apartment, and his wife, Regina, who is home with the baby, sometimes dashes through the bedroom when he’s on break to reach the bathroom.
The new job can be overwhelming and exhausting, McGrath said, but he’s thrilled that he has finally started a career that can support his family.
“It’s a tremendous blessing,” he said. “No matter how much it changes our financial situation, it just really gives me the opportunity to fulfill my vocation. My vocation isn’t working at Blue Cross. My vocation is to be a husband and father.”