Finding jobs for Cole and his peers

Because 70 percent of working age Americans with disabilities are currently outside of the workforce, as compared to 28 percent of those who don’t have disabilities,  I have already considered Cole’s path to a job where he can have the ability to achieve independence, feel respected and valued, and bring value to his employer.

As a legislator, I am proud of what Sens. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and others did decades ago for people with disabilities in passing the landmark legislation Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Because they worked in a bipartisan way, I know that Cole can access quality public school education where he can benefit from being with “typical” children, and they can benefit from spending time with him.

However, despite improvements in education for children with disabilities, most of those who graduate high school or college will find that no one is willing to hire them. Indeed, as the 57 million Americans with disabilities know all too well, the percentage of Americans with disabilities who are in jobs has not moved in two decades.

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Recently, I joined with Governor Jack Markell (D-Del.), chair of the National Governor’s Association, for “Building a More Inclusive Workforce: A National Summit to Boost Education and Employment Outcomes for Americans with Disabilities.” Sen. Harkin played a key role in the summit, and like Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) and others, he is extremely focused on these issues. We need bipartisan efforts to improve not only America’s bottom line, but the lives of millions.

Progress has begun in a handful of forward-thinking states and companies. In fact, my home state of Washington has much better outcomes than others. Companies such as Bank of America, Walgreens and Walmart have proven that you can do well (make money) and do good (hire Americans with disabilities) at the same time.  Indeed, companies who hire people with disabilities have been rewarded with loyal employees who stay at their jobs for years and are among their most productive workers.

Programs such as the non-profit Project Search, which forms successful partnerships between schools and places of employment to provide internship opportunities for young adults with disabilities, are one model of how to successfully transition students with disabilities into the work force. Unfortunately, only a small fraction of those who need such programs are able to participate.  We need to find a way to enhance our efforts.

Our current federal model is broken. Right now we spend more than $170 billion per year of taxpayer money to provide income support to people with disabilities when most of them would rather have a job.

Today, every family has, in some way, been touched by a disability.  The growing ranks of children who have been diagnosed with autism, the veterans returning from foreign wars without limbs or with traumatic brain injury, or people who, like Cole, have Down syndrome, all have value.

We must change the mindset of our country from looking at those with disabilities as a liability to seeing them as an unharnessed asset.  We must see the ability, not the disability. We need to remember that Americans with disabilities can and should be a part of the solution. With the help of business leaders, politicians and the citizens they serve, all must make this issue a priority. We must take down the barriers that have prohibited people with disabilities from finding a job.

A job is more than just money, it gives each of us a sense of purpose.  It is a part of who we are.  This is as true for people with disabilities as it is for those without.

My son, Cole, has at least twelve more years of school ahead of him before he looks for work.  For me as a parent and as a legislator, the clock is ticking.  I don’t want to waste a single day in the effort to ensure that Americans of  all abilities are valued and appreciated for the strengths they have.

McMorris Rodgers is in her fourth term representing Washington State’s 5th congressional district in the House of Representatives. She serves on the Energy and Commerce Committee and is chair of the House Republican Conference.

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