Today is the 22nd anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act for the 57 million people with a disability living in America — or one in five Americans. Let me talk about where we’ve come so far and why success is still not fully realized.
The ADA is supposed to guarantee equal work opportunities for people with disabilities, but less than half of the 17 million working age Americans with disabilities — around 41 percent — have a job. People with disabilities today participate in the workforce at a rate far lower than any other group, including women, African-Americans, and Latinos. Workers with disabilities also left the labor force during the 2008 recession at a rate five times faster than workers without disabilities.
This year, many promises are being made to fix the disability employment crisis. In the fall, the U.S. Department of Labor will decide on a rule that could require federal contractors to employ least seven percent of their workforce, at all levels, with people with disabilities.
Iowa Senator Tom Harkin just published a report pledging to make to use his power in Washington to “make the issue of disability employment a national priority.” He has joined with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in setting a goal to increase the size of the disability workforce from under five million to six million by 2015.
Meanwhile, new National Governors Association chair Jack Markell announced A Better Bottom Line, where NGA will create a blueprint for businesses and states that identify steps that can be put in place to increase the employment of people with intellectual and other significant disabilities who traditionally do not work.
Washington has often said its federal agencies need to be better role models for the private sector when it comes to employing people with disabilities. On the ADA’s 20th anniversary in 2010, President Obama signed Executive Order 13548, specifically setting a goal of hiring 100,000 people with disabilities by 2015. The U.S. Office of Personnel Management just reported that federal employees with disabilities represented 7.41 percent of the overall workforce and 11 percent when the figures include veterans who are 30 percent or more disabled.
Federal agencies also reported significant increases in new hires of persons with disabilities. Nearly 15 percent of all new hires are people with disabilities and veterans with disabilities — the highest percentage in 20 years. In total, more than 200,000 people with disabilities now work for the federal government, also the most in 20 years.
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Where does this leave people with disabilities in 2012? Still under-employed — and for many reasons.
The 2008 recession disproportionately affected employment for people with disabilities, but there are other factors involved. Misperceptions about people with disabilities persist, and negative attitudes linger. For example, it is not true that accommodating a person with a disability is expensive, or that a company’s health care costs will spike.
To counter these myths, we make the business case for hiring people with disabilities. Our campaign, Think Beyond the Label, sends the message to employers that “labels get in the way, disabilities rarely do.” The Think Beyond the Label website includes a jobs portal, advice for job seekers and access to unique events like virtual career fairs. On the employer side, our Hire Gauge tool helps companies calculate the tax and financial incentives (and cultural benefits) that come from hiring a person with a disability. Companies can also partner with us to find qualified candidates with disabilities and promote their hiring programs. (Qualcomm just joined our partnership program.)
As the nation celebrates the ADA, remember that people with disabilities are looking for what the original law promised — an equal opportunity to work. As the economy recovers, as veterans with disabilities come back from war, and as children with special needs make their way through the school system, the public and private sectors should seize the moment to tap the unique and often underused talents of people with disabilities.