Disability should not be deterrent to job market

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It has been more than two decades since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed. Since then, people with disabilities have proven they have what it takes to get the job done when given the chance. 

They perform blue-collar warehouse jobs and pursue white-collar professional careers. They fill high-paying salary positions and hourly labor posts.

A worker with a disability enters a work situation with one goal – to put their abilities on display and prove their worth. 

Still, consider this. Employment for people with disabilities is lower than it was before the passage of the ADA, which marks its 22nd anniversary this month (July). 

In fact, of all working-age people with disabilities, only one in five say that they are employed, compared to 59 percent of people without disabilities, according to a 2010 study conducted by Harris Interactive.
 
Two job candidates might be equal in other ways – including education and experience. But too many times the job candidate with the disability is left on the outside looking in.
 
The ripple effect can be felt in everyone’s wallet.

Because of barriers to employment, people with disabilities are twice as likely to live in poverty, draining an economy to which many disabled people are otherwise qualified to contribute.

We have a long way to go. Osbourne’s experience serves as a sad reminder that some people with disabilities still struggle to get a fair shake in the employment world.

This is the wrong way to operate, and a form of thinking that needs to change. 

Take the example of my colleague, Lauren.

Lauren has a disability that means she works each day from a power wheelchair, breathing with the aid of a ventilator. 

Does Lauren’s condition make some employers nervous?  She believes it does – that hiring managers don’t always know how to deal with someone in her condition. 

To feel “afraid” of Lauren because of her disability is to overlook someone who has a passion for her job that energizes those around her. She will be the first to tell you that her job as a communications specialist allows her to be a self-sufficient paycheck earner. 

Moreover, Lauren is able to have the pride and self-esteem that comes from having a place to go each morning with professional challenges to pursue.

More people with disabilities want what Lauren has – and they deserve the chance.

Companies should consider following the lead of Walgreen’s, which has served as a real champion for hiring workers with disabilities. 

At the company’s distribution center in South Carolina, more than 40 percent of the facility's employees have a physical or cognitive disability. 

Now Walgreen’s wants to expand this program worldwide. Its goal is to have 20 percent of all its distribution center jobs filled by people with disabilities. At Walgreen’s, employees with disabilities work side-by-side with other team members. They share the same productivity goals and earn the same pay. 

Walgreen’s sets high expectations for all employees – those with and without disabilities. At the same time, the staff is highly engaged, productive, has low absenteeism, low turnover and a high safety record.

If Walgreen’s can lead the way in the private sector, what could government accomplish?

In July 2010, President Obama ordered the government to hire 100,000 employees with disabilities in the next five years – a goal that federal agencies have not made great strides toward reaching.

A government report, released this spring, said this: Just one in nine of the agencies that had submitted plans for increased disability hiring had actually met the hiring criteria.

There is still time to reach the president’s goals, but the federal government needs to deliver more – the sooner, the better.

Meanwhile, non-traditional social endeavors like Hudson Community Enterprises are providing a model that can be duplicated throughout the country.

The Jersey City, N.J.-based business generates $5 million per year in sales. Salaries are competitive and people with disabilities hold jobs ranging from entry-level to management positions. Employees receive health benefits and have advancement opportunities.

Hudson Community Enterprises is proof that hiring with people with disabilities works – and its  model can translate well to for-profit companies.
 
Meanwhile, Jack Osbourne is being unfairly denied a spot he had already earned before his diagnosis.
 
Even though the ADA exists, real change can’t happen until the attitudes of some employers are adjusted.
 
Companies benefit when their workforces are truly diverse, and that means including people with disabilities.
 
Disability rights activist Richard Pimentel says: “The most important skill for people with disabilities is the ability to make people comfortable enough so they no longer see what you have; they see what you are.”

It is time to put more people with disabilities – people like Jack Osbourne -- on American payrolls. The payoff could be enormous.

DeRose is president and CEO of Kessler Foundation, a New Jersey-based group that funds medical research and innovative  programs to expand opportunities for job training and employment for people with disabilities, the single largest minority in the nation.

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