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A Call to Focus on Finding Jobs for Those with Disabilities

Photographer: Jay Mallin/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Robert Lambert, a blind worker at Blind Industries and Services of Maryland, carries fabric that has been cut into pieces for military uniforms in Baltimore, M.D., in Jan. 2012. Photo by Jay Mallin/ Bloomberg/ Getty Images.

As the United States prepares to observe the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act Thursday, it’s tempting to say, “hold the celebration.” That’s because for those with disabilities, the employment picture has, sadly, not improved since the ADA was signed into law 22 years ago.

In fact, during the recent recession, it deteriorated five times as badly as did employment for the rest of American workers. While the non-disability workforce shrank by about 2 percent, for people with disabilities, the number working fell by over 10 percent. And according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the picture has remained grim as the economy has begun its recovery: While 3 million new jobs were added to the able-bodied work force, workers with disabilities have seen their ranks shrink further.

The chief voice spreading the word about this depressing situation is Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the health, education, labor and pensions committee, and a long-time passionate advocate for those with disabilities.

Harkin has just released a report that calls on Congress, the president and his administration, private business and Americans everywhere to make finding jobs for people with disabilities a national priority. What sets the report apart is that it’s not limited to an assault on our guilty consciences.

With a surprising twist, the five-term senator contends, “[W]e are on the verge of substantial gains in this area, provided we get serious about welcoming people with disabilities into the workforce.”

Where does his optimism come from? A senior staffer for Harkin, Andrew Imparato, the former president of the American Association for People with Disabilities, lists several reasons, including:

  1. What they call a “new generation of young people with disabilities entering the labor force.” Imparato says they grew up in integrated schools and accessible neighborhoods, and expect to be hired at the same rate as their able-bodied friends. Joining this group are the wounded warriors returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, who are determined to work to take care of their families.

  2. Government and private employers are starting to hire more people with disabilities. In 2010, President Obama called on the federal government to hire an additional 100,000 workers with disabilities by 2015. Then, in 2011, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce called on the private sector to expand the disability workforce by over 1 million by 2015. In addition, the Labor Department has issued a proposed rule calling on federal contractors to make people with disabilities at least 7 percent of their workforce.

It takes a true believer to be optimistic in the face of the latest statistics, not a characteristic one expects from a figure like Harkin, who has served in Washington for almost 37 years.

But he has serious allies like Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, a Democrat who was elected chairman of the National Governors Association just last week. He announced that “boosting disability employment” will be his signature issue in that role. He said he plans to push governors, businesses and other thought leaders throughout the coming year to “share ideas and move forward with support for this population.”

“The bottom line is that there are so many people with disabilities who have the time, talent and desire to make meaningful contributions to interested employers,” he added. “…It doesn’t matter whether you were born with additional challenges to face or — in the case of our wounded veterans for example – acquired them later in life. What matters is what you have to offer.”

Meanwhile, on their own, private companies like Walgreens are setting goals of hiring individuals with disabilities and persuading other companies to do the same. (Walgreens alone hired 1,000 in the past 4 years.)

The ADA, signed by President George H. W. Bush in 1990, was passed because enough people believed it was long past time to make the same opportunities available for people with disabilities, as had been made for women and minorities. Since then, doors have opened for the elderly and for gays and lesbians. Hiring those with disabilities is still not a concept fully embraced in the private sector; as we see in the latest unemployment numbers. But there are signs of progress; the word is starting to spread.

If you know of examples of employers who have had successful experiences hiring those with disabilities, please share them with me by tweeting @judywoodruff.

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