People with severe disabilities, once destined to life in an institution or the close confines of home, are now proving they have plenty to offer in the employment marketplace, according to John O'Brien.

O'Brien, a consultant on ways to change systems to achieve integration for individuals with severe disabilities, was in Salt Lake City this week to give the keynote address at a one-day conference on integrating the severely handicapped into the public and private work force."For a long time, we thought having severe disabilities meant that you couldn't have a job. We thought we could evaluate someone with an IQ test or an aptitude test and say `you'll never be able to work,' " he said.

In the '50s and '60s, researchers began to question that theory. Studies looked at whether the severely disabled, particularly those with mental disabilities, could be taught. As part of one study, "experts" were asked how many of 100 retarded people could be taught to fix a bicycle brake, and how long it would take.

"The most optimistic thought that 20 percent could learn over a very long period of time," O'Brien said. "In reality, every single one of them learned, and it didn't take that long."

It was the first step in exploding three major myths: That the handicapped couldn't learn to do a job competently, that at best the retarded could only perform boring jobs, and that employers wouldn't want severely handicapped people working for them.

Although the research has been available for a long time, practical application is just beginning to blossom through projects like the Utah Supported Employment Program. Twenty-seven states have similar programs, supported in part by federal and state money. The Utah program, designed for people who would be unable to maintain employment without long-term on-the-job support and services, provides a job coach for the employee and an ironclad guarantee for the boss: The program promises the work done every single day will meet the quantity and quality standards of the other workers.

USEP is not a subsidized program. Employers are expected to hire the disabled worker for at least 20 hours a week (the goal is full-time work) at competitive wages, and provide the same benefits offered those in similar jobs. The job coach will work with the employee as long as it takes to master the job, will check in regularly to make certain the standards are kept up, and will be available at any time if the job changes or the employee needs help.

The advantages are great, O'Brien said. People who might be supported by government programs are able to earn their own living, reducing the burden on the state and country. The disabled employees tend to miss work less, have a lower turnover rate and a better overall attitude toward working.

The jobs being filled in Utah by the severely disabled are different as the individuals themselves. For example, jobs include cleaning buses for UTA, grounds maintenance, jewelry assembly, microfilming, food service, housekeeping, manufacturing bowling balls they are limited only by the willingness of the employer to give someone a chance.

Anyone interested in the program - and employers are particularly sought after - should call USEP at 533-6999.