It's time to end employment discrimination for people with disabilities
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Today, 61 million adult Americans live with some type of disability. More significantly, this cohort is growing; anyone can acquire a disability as a result of health issues, accidents, injuries or the normal wear and tear of aging. A chilling proof point is the Social Security Administration’s 2019 Fact Sheet that estimates 1 in 4 of today’s 20-year-olds will have a temporary or permanent brush with disability by age 67.

Yet there are a significant number of Americans with disabilities who need — and want — to work. If anything, the pandemic has shown us how important work is to our behavioral health and mental well-being. Yet in spite of the 30-year-old Americans with Disabilities Act, only 19 percent of people with disabilities are currently employed compared to 66 percent of the non-disabled population.

Equally troubling is the disability pay gap. Among the 11 million employed Americans with disabilities, median earnings were 66 percent that of their peers without disabilities, or $23,848 compared to $36,034, according to 2018 U.S. Census Bureau data (the most recent available).

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The employment situation is even more unjust for working-age adults with disabilities who have a college degree. Their employment rate is 10 percentage points lower than that of adults with only a high school diploma (59 percent vs. 69 percent), Brookings research shows. Among their college graduate peers, employment is 27 percentage points lower for graduates with disabilities (59 percent vs. 86 percent).

Nor is any of this likely to change soon given the current status of workplace diversity and inclusion efforts. Although 90 percent of companies claim to prioritize diversity and inclusion in the workplace, only 4 percent consider these issues in their D&I initiatives, Harvard Business Review reports.

National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), an annual observance each October that draws attention to the lack of jobs and lower pay faced by Americans with disabilities, has astutely made “increasing access and opportunity” its theme this year. As part of the disability community, Easterseals is committed to not only increasing access and opportunity but also eliminating inequities, which range from access to education and career opportunities to the pay gap and differences in benefits.

However, it’s important to note that the events of the past seven months have given new meaning to this year’s observance of NDEAM — and especially this year’s theme of access and opportunity. While the pandemic has decimated employment rates for Americans with disabilities, it has also shown us that the move to remote work offers them new opportunities. Working from home can allow individuals with disabilities to attain greater productivity and eliminate arduous commutes and the costs they incur.

This can help change the status quo for the millions of people with disabilities who have been turned away from jobs because they couldn’t travel to an office every day or work strict 9-to-5 schedules. Many employers lack disability-inclusive cultures, according to the National Organization on Disability’s 2020 Disability Employment Tracker of 200 organizations that collectively employ 8.7 million people. This lack of accommodation is part of the reason why unemployment among people with disabilities continues to be more than three times that of people without disabilities.

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But another reason to be wary of a culture that lacks workplace inclusion has been raised by the pandemic: Will it be difficult for people with disabilities to regain their jobs or find new employment when workplaces reopen? We must ensure that the virtual employment ecosystem remains in place after people go back to traditional workplace routines. Not only does it allow more people with disabilities to access jobs, it also offers networking opportunities through online symposiums and events to inform and further their job-related goals.

The new Congress should explore supporting the expanded use of technology and universal design to increase workplace inclusion, access and opportunity for individuals with disabilities. The pandemic has proven that people with disabilities are consistent, reliable and productive employees, especially during a national crisis.

We also urge the new Congress to increase financial incentives to companies that hire people with disabilities and commit greater resources in educational and training programs to prepare them for the workforce.

Finally, we encourage legislation that ensures equitable wages for people with disabilities, eliminating the pay gap that currently exists for comparable work done by their peers without disabilities.

As we go to the polls, we want to remind all Americans to look at candidates’ policies and platforms regarding the inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of society, including in the workplace. Realistically, any of us can become a part of this cohort during our lifetimes.

Angela Williams is president and CEO of Easterseals, a leading provider of services for people with disabilities, veterans and seniors.