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. 

Yuri Gripas/Reuters
Activists for the disabled hold a rally to demand equal access to hotel swimming pools and spas in this recent file photo. Twenty-two years after passage of the ADA, disabled people face markedly higher rates of unemployment.

Three years ago, Emilea Hillman got fed up with her $2.50 an-hour job hanging clothes at a sheltered workshop for people with disabilities and opened her own business. Now, Em’s Coffee Co. employs six people, some of whom also have disabilities, and turns a nice profit. 

But among the disabled, Ms. Hillman, born with a brain condition that makes it hard to learn certain tasks, and her employment history is an exception. Twenty-two years after passage of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, the employment rate for people with disabilities is still dismally low, and advocates want to change that. 

“The ADA … has made a difference in the lives of people with disabilities … but [for employment] the needle hasn’t moved,” says Helena Berger, executive vice president of the American Association of People with Disabilities in Washington. 

The recession hit disabled workers particularly hard – with a 10.4 percent decline in employment, compared with 2.1 percent for the general workforce, according to a report this month by the US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

Just 32 percent of the disabled were in the labor force as of June, while 80 percent say in surveys that they want to work, the report found.  By contrast, the labor force participation rate for people without disabilities is 77 percent. 

Ms. Berger says “attitudinal barriers” from employers is part of the problem: too many still fear a disabled worker will be sick more often or that their insurance rates will go up, rather than seeing the skill sets the individual brings.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa, who chairs the health committee and was an author of the ADA in 1990, has held a series of hearings recently to highlight ways that the government and the private sector can ensure better access to training and competitive jobs.

Several efforts are already under way, according to the recent report:

  • In 2010, President Obama set a goal of hiring 100,000 federal workers with disabilities by 2015.  In 2011, the Department of Labor proposed new regulations that, if adopted, would require federal contractors to proactively recruit and promote people with disabilitie
  • the US Chamber of Commerce has endorsed a goal of increasing the disabled workforce from about 5 million now to 6 million in 2015. 
  • The new chairman of the National Governors Association, Delaware Gov. Jack Markell (D), announced an initiative to provide state leaders with strategies to support employment opportunities for the disabled population. “A major emphasis will be on people who have significant intellectual and developmental disabilities and may require supports like job coaches and personal attendants in order to live and work in the community,” he noted in a letter introducing the plan.

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. 

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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