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Disabled Americans: Jobless rate still high 22 years after landmark law

Twenty-two years after passage of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, there's progress, but employment rates for the disabled remain dismally low. Advocates hope to change that. 

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Some states boast much higher rates of employment among the disabled. In Wyoming and North Dakota for instance, it was just over 50 percent in 2010. Wisconsin has seen an 83 percent success rate in placing and retaining workers through a public- and private-sector, on-the-job training initiative. 

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Washington State is one of 12 states embracing an “Employment First” strategy for placing disabled youths in integrated employment settings. In 2005, only 6 percent of youths worked in such settings after finishing their education. But after agencies and schools started cooperating to smooth the transition to employment, the rate shot up to 56 percent. 

Drugstore chain Walgreens was highlighted in the report for hiring a workforce made up of at least 20 percent workers with disabilities in two of its distribution centers. They include individuals with seizure disorders, autism, hearing impairments, visual impairments, cerebral palsy, intellectual disabilities, and mental health disabilities. 

After reaching that goal, these centers had a 40 percent lower accident rate than comparable distribution centers, as well as 67 percent lower medical treatment costs, 63 percent lower lost employee time due to accidents, and 78 percent lower overall costs associated with accidents, the report notes. 

Walgreens now is aiming for 10 percent of its overall workforce to be people with disabilities, on an unspecified timeline. 

On the other hand, many people with disabilities are nudged into entrepreneurship when they bump up against discrimination or other barriers in their hunt for a job. About 11 percent were self-employed in 2010, compared with 7 percent of non-disabled workers.

Testifying before Senator Harkin’s committee earlier this month, Ms. Hillman said the sheltered workshop workshop job was her only option when she finished high school in 2007. But tired of hanging clothing and having no interaction with customers, she went on unemployment for six months, while she enlisted the help of her family and Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services to write a business plan. She worked with a job coach and trained to make espresso drinks, and her business success has led her to sponsor a Special Olympics team.

“I know my customers by name and I know what they drink,” she said in prepared testimony. “I am a … respected business owner in Independence (Iowa). I assure you, everyone can work.”

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