By Rodger DeRose - 07/24/13 10:57 PM EDT
As we mark the 23rd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) this month, the lack of progress in employment for people with disabilities casts a shadow over the law’s achievements.
The number of people with disabilities who are job hunting has increased, but opportunities for employment haven’t gone up. How can we resolve this issue? It is a question that we face daily.
More people with disabilities would have the sense of pride and dignity that comes with earning a paycheck.
Meanwhile, workplaces become more diverse when people with disabilities are also adding their talents, and bringing new ideas and solutions to the table.
Hiring a person with a disability shouldn’t be done to satisfy some box-check compliance rule. The person with a disability should be hired because they can do the job.
Having a law in place doesn’t necessarily mean opportunities will follow.
According to the most recent federal statistics, only 1 in 5 people with a disability is employed. Many people with disabilities give up on finding employment, weary of hearing the word “no” repeatedly.
While many companies — to be ADA compliant — have implemented disability policies, far fewer companies have actual programs in place to hire people with disabilities.
The percentage of people with disabilities — the largest minority in the nation — actively looking for work increased from 4.5 percent in June 2012 to 5 percent in June 2013, according to the Trends in Disability Employment Report, a joint project from Kessler Foundation and the University of New Hampshire.
One reason more people with disabilities are seeking work: Thanks to the ADA, more schools are accessible and accommodating students with disabilities. As a result, talented graduates who have benefited fully from the ADA are entering the workforce. Still, while all people with disabilities have skills to benefit businesses, they face difficulties finding work.
There is some positive movement.
The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs has introduced rules that require federal contractors to have a specific percentage of employees with disabilities (7 percent is proposed). Additionally, sustainable partnerships between employers and disability employment programs have led to significant gains in building an inclusive workforce while providing training and reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities.
As Kessler Foundation’s funding of disability employment initiatives has demonstrated, there are countless examples where positive acceptance of people with disabilities in the work force can make good business sense.
The Kessler Foundation issued a grant earlier this year to the Association of People Supporting Employment First to work with OfficeMax.
A training center will prepare some workers for positions in a distribution warehouse, others for jobs at the retail stores. Individuals will have the option to choose the career track that they want to pursue.
For the person with a disability who has the ability and desire to work, but is not able to travel to a centralized office, allowing that person to telecommute is a solution.
The Boston-based National Telecommuting Institute, another Kessler Foundation grantee, placed 300 workers with disabilities as home-based call center agents this year alone.
These employees act as call center representatives for national organizations, such as the Internal Revenue Service.
Social ventures also help put people with disabilities to work. In St. Louis, Destination Desserts, also a Kessler Foundation grantee, operates a food truck designed to provide training and employment opportunities for people with life-changing head injuries and other cognitive disabilities.
As these examples show, people with disabilities can work and do the job just as well, if not better, than anyone else. Those of us in the field have grown impatient when we hear the myths that are frequently used to justify why people with disabilities are not hired.
For instance, some companies are concerned that workers with disabilities will be absent more or will be less productive. Others fear an increase in healthcare costs for people with disabilities and costs associated with disability accommodations.
In reality, workers with disabilities have lower rates of absenteeism and turnover, and higher rates of loyalty.
Workplace dedication leads to increased productivity. Better yet, the costs of hiring people with disabilities are no higher than hiring people without disabilities.
All a worker with a disability may need is one opportunity. To the employer that offers that opportunity, the payoff is real and the benefit to society profound.
DeRose is president and CEO of Kessler Foundation, a New Jersey 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 seeks to improve cognition and mobility for people with multiple sclerosis, brain injury, stroke, spinal cord injury and other disabling conditions.