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At ADA Anniversary, Disabled Workers Still Struggle More with Unemployment

July 26, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Twenty-two years after George H.W. Bush signed the American Disability Act into law, questions remain on whether the law prevents hiring discrimination of disabled workers. Judy Woodruff talks to U.S. Business Leadership Network's Jill Houghton and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) about efforts to employ more disabled people.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, unemployment as it affects people with disabilities.

That was the subject of much attention today on the 22nd anniversary of the signing of the Americans With Disabilities Act. During the recession, disabled workers were hit five times as hard as other workers when it came to losing their jobs. People with disabilities have also had more trouble finding new jobs during the recovery.

Now there’s a new push from some leaders in politics and business to fight those trends, including by the new chairman of the National Governors Association, Delaware’s Jack Markell, who says he plans to make this his signature issue.

Well, we talk now to two individuals closely involved with all these efforts. Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa, he is the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee. And Jill Houghton, she’s the executive director of the non-profit U.S. Business Leadership Network.

And we thank you both for being with us.

JILL HOUGHTON, U.S. Business Leadership Network: Thank you.

As our economy starts to improve and come back, we want to make sure that people with disabilities aren't left behind. Sen Tom Harkin (D-Iowa)

SEN. TOM HARKIN (D-Iowa): Thanks, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Senator Harkin, to you first.

At a time when most everybody in the country is worried about employment across the board, why is it important to focus on those with disabilities?

SEN. TOM HARKIN: Well, because 22 years after the enactment of the Americans With Disabilities Act, we have an unemployment rate among people with disabilities approaching 67, almost two-thirds.

Two out of every three people with disabilities are not working.

This is just unconscionable this many years after the ADA. I know we have had a recession. As you have pointed out, they were let go, laid off at five times the rate of non-disabled workers. So, as our economy starts to improve and come back, we want to make sure that people with disabilities aren’t left behind.

And that’s why it’s so important right now. We’re getting the business communities together. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce last year had a goal for the businesses in America of adding an additional one million people with disabilities into the competitive integrated work force by 2015. So we have got a great push by business.

And I think we can get this job done. It’s so important that we don’t leave people with disabilities behind when our economy recovers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jill Houghton, before we talk about what may change, why is it so bad? As the senator just said, 22 years after the act and other initiatives, why is it still so tough?

JILL HOUGHTON: Well, 22 years after the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act — the ADA gave us access and gave equal opportunity to people with disabilities. But the one thing that you can’t do is legislate attitudes.

And what we’re doing at the U.S. Business Leadership Network and in partnership with Senator Harkin and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is bringing business together to learn from each other. What business can do is — they respond to their peers. It’s complicated. There are a sea of government programs out there, and it’s hard to navigate all of those resources.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, speaking of government programs, Senator Harkin, I saw that just two months ago, the government accounting office took the government to task for not doing enough. They issued a report saying the federal government wasn’t making enough progress two years after President Obama said it should be a priority to hire, what, 100,000 people before 2015.

SEN. TOM HARKIN: Absolutely.

This is not just restricted to the business community. It’s in government, too. And we intend to hold this administration to its goals of hiring 100,000 people in the federal work force by — again, by 2015. They’re behind and they better catch up.

I think the important thing is, is that we see a new attitude among businesses in this country. And that’s really where the key is. Government employment is OK, but we want people to be working in the private sector. And businesses are now responding.

We had a wonderful meeting, Judy, about two months ago in Connecticut with Walgreens. Greg Wasson, the CEO of Walgreens, Randy Lewis, who is in charge of their distribution centers had a big group of CEOs and business leaders from some of the major corporations in America.

And what they showed was that at their distribution center, for example, almost 50 percent of their employees were disabled. Yet, that was one of their most productive distribution centers in all of America. And so they have shown — and others, Procter & Gamble, Lowe’s, others have shown that this is not charity.

In fact, hiring people with disabilities can be good for your bottom line. And now this is spreading out. And more and more business are finding out that that is true.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me ask Jill Houghton about that, because, for the longest time, it wasn’t a priority, clearly, given that, that, what, two-thirds of people with disabilities are not employed.

What’s changing it? Why is the attitude changing?

JILL HOUGHTON: It’s a burning inferno out there. And it’s being led by companies, like the senator mentions, like at Walgreens.

Randy Lewis is a parent. He is a parent of a child with autism. And he’s a senior executive at Walgreens. And he set out consciously to change their work force. And what they found is that their work force changed them and that it made good business sense, that it wasn’t a nice thing to do, but it impacted their bottom line.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How did it make good business sense? I mean, what was different?

JILL HOUGHTON: It made — well, in fact, they did an internal study at Walgreens, and what they found was that their safety record, that their safety costs decreased, that their employee retention increased, that loyalty to their brand increased due to their employment, consciously employing with disabilities.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Harkin, I think some people may be listening and saying, what is it that’s being asked for? Is it that you’re asking that a person — if there’s a choice between hiring someone with disabilities and someone without, you should hire someone with disabilities? What exactly is the choice that you’re asking employers to make?

SEN. TOM HARKIN: I’m asking employers to do what they have already agreed to do, and that is to have a little bit more affirmative action, to seek out people who have disabilities who are qualified for the job.

We’re not asking any business to hire anyone with a disability who’s not qualified. This is not charity. We want them to hire people who are qualified and who can do the job. And, yes, maybe they might have to do some small accommodation. Walgreens has shown that they — they put in small accommodations, but they found out that that helped their bottom line, because their workers were more productive.

So that’s all we’re asking businesses to do, is when they start hiring people back, make sure that they reach out, because a lot of times, people with disabilities are not — they don’t get in line. They’re not up front.

And we need community-based foundations, religious organizations, other entities to help us find these qualified workers. And we’re asking the businesses to have a little extra effort to go out and try to find them and recruit them and bring them into the work force.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so, Jill Houghton, just quickly, when you talk to businesses that haven’t done this, what’s the question? What’s their caution? What’s holding them back still?

JILL HOUGHTON: You know, we created an environment where businesses can come and talk to each other. And they learn best from their peers.

So, what’s holding them back is that they don’t know. And the best way for business to learn is from their peers. And so that’s why companies like Walgreens, through the U.S. Business Leadership Network, are learning from each other.

People come to their business. They have a boot camp where they say, you know, hey, come in to our distribution center. Come in and learn what we’re doing. We will teach you everything we know.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just finally, Senator Harkin, why — I guess I asked this at the beginning, but why does it matter? Why does this make a difference, whether it happens or not?

SEN. TOM HARKIN: A person’s life, no matter who you are, is better when you work.

Work is a part of life. It gives you fulfillment. It gives you the independence, the economic self-sufficiency to have a more full life. No one wants to be shunted aside and sit and watch TV all day. People want to work. They want to be a part of the American experience. They want to contribute to society.

To leave behind so many millions of people who have qualifications, who can do a great job — they may have a disability, but they have abilities to do things. To leave them behind is just unconscionable. It’s not worthy of a great country like America.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we are going to leave it there, but we thank you both very much for joining us, Senator Tom Harkin, Jill Houghton. We appreciate it.

JILL HOUGHTON: Thank you.