Washington, D.C., Oct. 11 – At North Carolina State University, 321 Coffee is a nonprofit coffee shop fully staffed by people with intellectual and developmental disabilities getting payed above minimum wage. CEO Lindsay Wrege is working to open a store front to create more opportunities for people with disabilities.
321 Coffee is an exception, however, as the vast majority of North Carolinians with disabilities are out of work. This month is the perfect time to examine why.
232,875 working-age North Carolinians with disabilities are employed, putting the state’s disability employment rate at 33.8 percent. That total includes people who are blind or deaf or have other visible conditions such as spinal cord injuries, as well as people with invisible disabilities including learning disabilities, mental health or Autism.
As such, Gov. Roy Cooper has declared October as Disability Employment Awareness Month to help raise this percentage.
“Executive order No. 92, Employment First for North Carolinians with disabilities, establishes North Carolina as an Employment First state, to increase opportunities of meaningful employment, fair wages, and career opportunities for people with disabilities,” Gov. Cooper stated.
The Employment First program has been a success in multiple other states and continues to provide employment opportunities for people with disabilities. With Employment First, Gov. Cooper directs state government to be leaders in helping disabled people to become independent. This proclamation follows a solid year of job losses among people with disabilities living in the Tar Heel State.
While 16,355 people with disabilities left North Carolina’s workforce last year, it means an opportunity for leaders to work towards growth next year and to continue the trend of new jobs for the one in five Americans living with disability.
An annual celebration, National Disability Employment Awareness Month is dedicated to raising awareness about disability employment issues and celebrating the incredible contributions of people with disabilities. According to RespectAbility, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that works to fight stigmas and advance opportunities so that people with disabilities can participate fully in society, North Carolina ranks 42nd in the nation on jobs for people with disabilities.
South Dakota, North Dakota and Utah have the highest disability employment rates of any state. These are the results of deliberate strategies implemented by leaders in the community, in government and in the school system. Employment First is one such strategy, which North Carolina already is utilizing.
North Carolina can further capitalize on past successes by following the example of states that show constant improvement such as Florida and Ohio. Both can attribute a portion of their growth in disability employment to Project SEARCH, a program for young adults with disabilities to improve their skills, learn from job coaches and ultimately find a job. Data shows that 70 percent of SEARCH interns who complete their training obtain competitive employment. By expanding such critical programs, North Carolina can increase the number of people with disabilities entering the workforce.
Companies that embrace employees with disabilities clearly see the results in their bottom line. According to Accenture, disability-inclusive companies have higher productivity levels and lower staff turnover rates, are twice as likely to outperform their peers in shareholder returns and create larger returns on investment.
The fact is that disability is part of the human experience. It is nothing to fear because all of us will be affected by it eventually, whether by accident, aging or illness. Opening more job opportunities to people with disabilities will mean stronger communities and a better economy for all. Achieving that requires all of us working together because people with disabilities are the right talent, right now.