“This observance, highlights the talent and value added to our workplace and our communities by individuals with disabilities, and reaffirms the State of Alaska’s commitment to all of our citizens,” Gov. Dunleavy wrote in a statement released earlier this month. His proclamation also discussed how “competitive and unified employment provides individuals with a sense of pride, financial security, stable living conditions, access to better health management, and increased independence.”
Further, the proclamation also reflected on Alaska’s standing commitments as a “Employment First State, prioritizing competitive and assimilated employment for Alaskans.” Lastly, Gov. Dunleavy also touched on “the Alaska Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act” that “empowers Alaskans with disabilities to pursue employment earnings and savings, while allowing them to still qualify for vital public benefits.”
This statement reflects the accomplishments of a state that outperforms many of the Lower 48 states in the Union. A recent study by RespectAbility, a nonpartisan disability inclusion organization, found that Alaska ranks 12th out of the 50 states in terms of disability employment.
In 2018, 23,815 Alaskans with disabilities had jobs putting that state’s disability employment at 44.9 percent employment. According to the Institute on Disability, that is well above the national disability employment rate of only 37 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.
Alaska is doing the right things and investing in cost-effective solutions. These differences 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 and has been the law in Alaska since 2014. It is a strategy where critical social programs are oriented towards 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.
Alaska 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, Alaska continue to 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.