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Employment Matters for People with Disabilities

Five images of people with disabilities working. Text: The Right Talent, Right Now National Disability Employment Awareness Month #NDEAM dol.gov/odep

Poster for NDEAM 2019. Credit: Office of Disability Employment Policy, U.S. Department of Labor

Washington D.C., Oct. 28 – October marks the 73rd annual celebration of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). This month is a chance to celebrate job seekers with disabilities who are striving to work and companies that are dedicated to recruiting talented employees with disabilities. The theme for NDEAM 2019 is “The Right Talent, Right Now.” Indeed, employment matters for people with disabilities for more than just financial reasons. People with disabilities are seeking the opportunity to achieve independence, just like anyone else.

To mark this celebration, the White House released a Presidential Proclamation “to celebrate the contributions of Americans with disabilities to our country’s workforce and economic strength.” The proclamation also reaffirmed the administration’s commitment “to fostering opportunity for Americans of all abilities to apply their skills and talents in the workplace.”

Statistics released earlier this year by the Institute on Disability show that out of more than 20 million working-age people with disabilities, only 7.5 million have jobs. 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.

This data also shows that while there has been job growth for people with disabilities, that serious gaps remain between disabled and non-disabled Americans. Just 37 percent of U.S. civilians with disabilities ages 18-64 living in the community had a job, compared to 77.2 percent for people without disabilities.

“Our nation was founded on the principle that anyone who works hard should be able to get ahead in life,” said Hon. Steve Bartlett, co-author the Americans with Disabilities Act when he was in Congress and current Chairman of RespectAbility. “People with disabilities deserve the opportunity to earn an income and achieve independence, just like anyone else.”

The White House’s proclamation for NDEAM put special attention on the critical role that states have to play in advancing opportunities for people with disabilities: “States are in the best position to create real, lasting, and quantifiable change through solutions tailored to the economic and employment realities within their communities, especially for Americans with disabilities.” Looking closely at the data shows how geography, economics and specific state policies have an impact on employment outcomes for Americans with disabilities.

Some states have higher employment rates for people with disabilities than others. North Dakota leads the nation with 56.3 percent of its citizens with disabilities employed and is closely followed by South Dakota with a 51.3 percent disability employment rate. One of the biggest surprises in this year’s data is Vermont. Under Gov. Phil Scott, Vermonters with disabilities have seen a 5.7 percent increase in jobs, bumping their employment rate to 47.2 percent.

“Employment rates only tell part of the story,” added Philip Kahn-Pauli, Policy and Practices Director at RespectAbility. “When you look across the intersection of disability and race, you find serious gaps in outcomes.” Only 28.6 percent of African Americans with disabilities have jobs compared to the 38.6 percent of Hispanics with disabilities and 41.2 percent of Asian Americans with disabilities who have jobs.

Of the 50 states, 29 states saw job gains among the disability community, while people with disabilities lost economic ground in 21 states. Census Bureau data shows an astounding 23,953 Floridians with disabilities gained new jobs. Illinois saw the second biggest job gains for people with disabilities with over 20,000 new jobs even as 50,000 people without disabilities left Illinois’ workforce.

Expanding employment opportunities is nonpartisan, as both Democrats and Republicans are quick to recognize what people with disabilities can accomplish. This year, several governors have shown their support through public proclamations, executive orders and press statements. These include Gov. Ducey (Arizona), Gov. Hutchinson (Arkansas), Gov. DeSantis (Florida), Gov. Whitmer (Michigan), Gov. Walz (Minnesota), Gov. Murphy (New Jersey), Gov. Cooper (North Carolina), Gov. Stitt (Oklahoma), Gov. McMaster (South Carolina), Gov. Abbott (Texas), Gov. Northam (Virginia) and Gov. Evers (Wisconsin).

South Dakota, North Dakota and Utah have the highest disability employment rates of any state. These tremendous outcomes are no accident. 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. It is a strategy where critical social programs are oriented toward ensuring that getting a job is the top priority for individuals with disabilities. That goal is reinforced with high expectations among the teachers, coaches and parents around that individual.

States 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, state leaders 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. JPMorgan Chase, EY, Coca-Cola, Bank of America and others are intentional about hiring people with disabilities and connecting to customers with disabilities.

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.

Meet the Author

Philip Pauli
Philip Pauli

Philip Kahn-Pauli is the Policy and Practices Director of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for people with disabilities. He works with state leaders to develop solutions for youth with disabilities, support job seekers with disabilities and open pathways into the workforce. To reach him, email philipp@respectability.org.

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