Disability advocates and self-advocates do not allow disability to define who they are… or aren’t. The same idea applies to employment. In fact, October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. For 2015, the theme is “My Disability Is One Part of Who I Am.” The idea goes back some 70 years, to October 1945, when President Harry S Truman declared the National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week. In recognizing people with all disabilities, the word “physically” was removed in 1962. Then, in 1988, Congress literally expanded the name to its current form. Also noteworthy is the 1978 book by special-education teacher Marc Gold, Try Another Way, to teach adults with intellectual disabilities to perform complex tasks, becoming the basis of supported employment.
One could also go back to the turn of the previous century and revisit the efforts of Elizabeth Farrell, who at the Henry Street School in New York City used manual work as one way to provide a meaningful experience for her students with severe special needs.
This year, 2015, we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This landmark legislation has done much to help ensure that people with disabilities have access to meaningful work. There has been a marked trend in the increase of employment agencies and business leadership groups, most notably the U.S. Business Leadership Network, which specialize in helping job seekers with a disability find a job and for companies to find these candidates. An important step was in 1983, with the founding of the Job Accommodation Network, an initiative that offers guidance and information to work toward solutions to benefit both parties on issues of hiring and accommodation.
A notable government effort, the AbilityOne Program, established in 2006, helps people with severe disabilities by requiring the federal government to purchase specific products and services from companies that hire these individuals.
The What Can You Do? Campaign for disability employment is “a collaborative effort to promote positive employment outcomes for people with disabilities by encouraging employers and others to recognize the value and talent they bring to the workplace” by offering a wide variety of resources. Even more recent is the February 2015 the White House publication Recruiting, Hiring, Retaining and Promoting People with Disabilities.
Some organizations have specific groups in mind. For young adults, there is the National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability, to ensure that transition age youth are provided full access to high-quality services in integrated settings to gain education, employment, and access to independent living.
Noteworthy among regional efforts is the Massachusetts Down Syndrome Congress, which launched a new public awareness campaign, Your Next Star, to alert employers to the benefits of having people with Down syndrome in the workplace. Among the benefits of employing people with Down syndrome they cite the following:
- With the right supports, they can perform just as well as their non-disabled peers.
- Most employees with Down syndrome are more reliable and less likely to quit than their non-disabled peers.
- Many households include someone with a disability; they are likely to want to support inclusive businesses.
- Hiring people with a disability promotes good will and a positive public image.
- With their positive outlook and sense of humor, people with Down syndrome often make the workplace a nice place to be a part of.
What’s Not So Good
If work is such an important part of citizenship and civic responsibility, then should not as many people as possible be working? Moreover, having work confers individuals with status and a sense of meaning, as well as independence and dignity. However, even with the considerable success of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), many people with disabilities remain unemployed or underemployed. Recent U.S. Bureau of the Census statistics present a sobering picture:
- $1,961: The average monthly earnings of people with any kind of disability.
- $2,724: The average monthly earnings of people with no disability.
- 28.6% of people 25 to 64 years old with a severe disability live in poverty.
- 17.9%: The poverty rate for people with a non-severe disability.
- 14.3%: Poverty rate for people with no disability.
And we learn from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics the following:
- 9.3%: Unemployment rate for people with disabilities
- 5.3%: Unemployment rate for persons with no disability, not seasonally adjusted
- 20.0%: The percentage of people with disabilities in the labor force
- 69.1%: Percentage of people with no disability in the labor force.
In a recent report, just as young adults with autism feel disconnected in school, one in three feel the same in the work place afterward.
While significant challenges exist, one thing we can learn from many people with disabilities is that with hard work, challenges can be overcome.