People with disabilities still find job market a challenge

People with disabilities are being left out of the economic recovery – a disconcerting development that suggests that more work needs to be done to help create employment opportunities for this population.

After all, PWD can hold public office, earn advanced degrees, crack the starting lineup for a Super Bowl winning team and compete on Dancing with the Stars

So, why aren’t more PWD working in everyday jobs? What can be done to correct this?

New strategies need to be developed in order to expand employment opportunities for PWD. Indeed, hiring PWD enhances the diversity of a workforce.  PWD can, and want to, contribute to the economy. Still, to understand how urgently a solution is needed, we must first look at the current situation.

The July 2014 Bureau of Labor Statistics Jobs Report paints a discouraging, frustrating picture.

Three key indicators – employment-to-population ratio, labor force participation rate and percentage of people looking for work – were all down for PWD compared to the same month in 2013. In fact, this has been the case for every single month so far in 2014. The year started off with low numbers – disappointing statistics that have become the rule, not the exception. The most recent BLS Report said 288,000 jobs were created throughout the economy.  But not enough of those new jobs went to PWD.

This is something that can – and should – be corrected.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) turns 24 in July.  More opportunities should exist for PWD by now, nearly a quarter century after the act was signed. We are not as far along as we need to be, however. While many companies — to be ADA compliant — have implemented disability policies, far fewer companies have actual programs in place to hire PWD. 

Consider this:  In 2013, just over one in six — or 17.6 percent — of PWD actually had a job, according to a Labor Department report issued in June. In addition, the employment number doesn’t even reflect how many PWD have given up on their search to find employment.  Even one person is too many. Each year, the number of PWD grows.  So, how do we get more PWDs to work – some of whom have never held a job?

No one solution in itself provides that answer.

The traditional one person at a time approach isn’t opening up as many doors as need to be opened.  We need to apply strategies that will provide jobs to large numbers of people with disabilities.

The Obama administration has issued a mandate stipulating that that federal contractors must employ a minimum of 7 percent of workers with disabilities or prove they are taking steps to hire more in order to avoid facing penalties or losing their government contracts.

Still, while this development is a step in the right direction, it is not the only solution being suggested. Schools, corporations, nonprofit organizations and state and federal agencies are providing resources and developing best practices to create or expand job opportunities, build connections with employers and prepare PWD for employment Large companies are slowly engaging.  Some are actively participating in hiring – others are looking into the best way to integrate more PWD into their workforce. Public-private partnerships are helping to integrate more PWDs into the workforce at national companies such as Walgreens, Lowe’s, OfficeMax and Pepsi Americas Beverages.

Creativity also plays a part.  One non-profit, the Center for Head Injury Services in St. Louis thought out of the box and created their own small business that provides  a service to the community and earns money for the charity while providing jobs for PWD.

These examples demonstrate that everyone can win. 

The business that Center for Head Injury Services started is Destination Desserts, a purpose-driven social enterprise business that employs people with disabilities to bake and sell cookies, brownies, cupcakes and other quality food choices. They use a food truck to extend their brand awareness and sell products at corporate parks and community events. Most importantly, Destination Desserts is providing opportunities for training and employment for people with brain injuries. Funding social enterprise businesses is an effective strategy that benefits the community while expanding job opportunities.

The employment situation for PWD will only improve when government, nonprofits, and corporations work together to implement strategies that integrate people with disabilities into diverse, accessible workplaces.

Real progress can only be made when PWD are held to the same standards as their fellow employees and valued for their contributions to the workforce.  PWD should be hired because employers WANT to hire them, not because they NEED to.

DeRose is president and CEO of Kessler Foundation, a national organization dedicated to improving employment and job training options for Americans with disabilities. In addition, Kessler Foundation is a global leader in rehabilitation research that improves cognition and mobility for people with multiple sclerosis, brain injury, stroke, spinal cord injury and other disabling conditions.

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