The lives of many Americans with significant disabilities are filled with stories of success or unrealized promise.
That’s because of the 60-plus million Americans with disabilities who are of working age, almost 80 percent of them do not participate in the labor force. Compare that to the national labor participation rate of about 69.4 percent, and it’s clear that we as a society are not doing nearly enough to empower what has become the largest group of disenfranchised people in the country.
That’s not to say that some aren’t trying to solve this problem. At SourceAmerica® we have helped more than 125,000 people with significant disabilities find jobs via our network of more than 1,000 community-based nonprofit agency partners. But several severe obstacles stand in the way of progress, restricting access to employment opportunities for Americans with disabilities. These obstacles include education, leveraging existing resources and current public policy. Each of these hurdles can and should be cleared, and it’s time we all worked together to come up with a solution to increase the number of people with disabilities in the labor force.
While the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) opened doors for young adults with disabilities, far too few individuals with disabilities transition from high school to college, which is recognized as a critical factor in attaining employment. So, high school is the only period of their lives when they have day-to-day access to professional educational support. Thus, the skills they learn in school become the skills that they can rely on to succeed when they reach adulthood.
Elizabeth MacKenzie, Unit Director for Cooperative Educational Services (CES), a Connecticut-based school for students with disabilities, has firsthand experience helping youths become more self-sufficient. She has designed programs to better meet the educational challenges of students with developmental and emotional disabilities, a big part of which includes professional development and on-the-job training.
“It’s all about matching the skills of our students with the tasks involved in performing a job,” said MacKenzie. “A lot of it involves encouraging positive behavior so that they know to ask for help if they need it.”
According to MacKenzie, CES encourages its students to practice job skills while in school by, for instance, working with cafeteria staff. The school also helps a number of their developmentally higher-functioning students find jobs via partnerships with local employers.
While many schools that work with students with disabilities are primarily focused on getting their students to attain a certain level of cognitive ability, CES gives students the tools for a brighter future. More schools and non-profit organizations could and should follow this model of active job placement and training, helping to reduce the burden on government agencies that may only have the resources to provide basic disability support.
2. Leveraging Existing Resources
Another obstacle to increasing the employment of people with disabilities is reducing their overreliance on parents or legal guardians for financial support. With little incentive to leave the nest and no job opportunities on the horizon, these students-turned-adults often let their skills go to waste.
That’s why it is so important that these individuals leverage local and national nonprofits to help them find jobs and live independently. To see the efficacy of this route, consider the story of Michael Dolan.
Michael sought services and support through The Arc of San Diego, an affiliate of The Arc of the United States, the largest national organization advocating for and serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. At that time, Michael was living under conservatorship with his parents. His only prior work history involved volunteer work at a dog training facility in Chicago, where he helped exercise the animals and clean the kennels. Michael, who was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder and ADHD, also had low self-esteem and would often get down on himself if he couldn’t complete a task perfectly.
When he connected with The Arc in 2009, Michael said he was able to “turn his life around.” The Arc offered Michael an opportunity to work in food service — at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego. Michael learned his new responsibilities, including serving food, mopping the floor, washing dishes, and helping out in the scullery with the support of a job coach. Because of his newfound confidence, now he’s now more comfortable speaking up when he notices a problem and doesn’t criticize himself as much. He now lives with his mother in California, but is no longer under her legal guardianship. He is also very active in the community, and is currently going to school at a local college to pursue a criminal justice degree.
Stories like Michael’s are rare, but they don’t need to be. And there’s evidence that all Americans are eager to be engaged in the labor force.
According to a recent Harris Poll commissioned by SourceAmerica, 96 percent of working Americans support the right of people with disabilities to be actively employed. The poll results also show that 91 percent of employed Americans believe qualified people with disabilities should be hired for the same positions as those without disabilities. These results confirm a 2013 SourceAmerica survey that found nine out of 10 customers equally satisfied with the quality of work from a person regardless of their disability status.
These statistics are telling, but the reality is that 80 percent of working-age adults with disabilities remain ostracized from the workforce.
3. Current Public Policy
Census statistics indicate that there are nearly 10 million people with significant disabilities in the United States who could work given the appropriate opportunity and support. Even with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), Assistive Technology Act, and initiatives on the federal state and local levels including initiatives from the U.S. Department of Labor, Justice, and OPM, why are these individuals still not working?
One reason is that for employers, there are misconceptions that individuals with significant disabilities lack the ability to complete the work as well as people without disabilities, and that they require cost-intensive accommodations to properly perform the job.
Meanwhile, there are 14 million Americans of working age with significant disabilities that receive Federal disability and medical benefits. Individuals that do find jobs risk losing all or most of their benefits, particularly those who receive Social Security Disability Insurance benefits.
There have been additional efforts over the past few decades to increase employment rates, including the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) of 1998 and the recent WIOA amendment. These laws created employment programs to help individuals with disabilities obtain employment within their community.
These are both steps in the right direction. However, a major issue is fragmentation and differing views in the disability community which challenge the opportunity to positively influence the additional work that needs to be done in public policy.
Several years ago SourceAmerica took the initiative to create the Institute for Economic Empowerment to conduct research and develop projects toward fulfilling the goal of full and fair employment for individuals with significant disabilities.
One solution that is growing in popularity is to have the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) amend the existing tax code to establish an Employer Payroll Tax Adjustment (EPTA) in order to create an ongoing resource for employers. The EPTA would help commercial businesses provide job accommodations for people with disabilities, thus increasing demand for their continued employment, while reducing an employer’s FICA tax payment for each such individual employed.
The Institute is currently conducting a large-scale demonstration, Pathways to Careers, in which one objective is to test the efficacy of the EPTA. In the model, employers are eligible to receive EPTA payments of between $167 and $583 per month for each Pathways participant they hire who works and earns at least $750 per month. These amounts were determined based on how much money the federal government saves on programs for people with disabilities when Pathways participants go to work.
SourceAmerica hopes to determine whether sharing these savings with employers creates greater incentives for them to hire people with disabilities. If successful, the EPTA would be net positive to the Federal treasury, reducing the national deficit while also putting more Americans to work.
People with disabilities have long been at a disadvantage when it comes to contributing to the labor force, but it’s not for lack of ability or will. The Federal government, local and national organizations, communities, people with disabilities, families and friends — now need to come together to create an infrastructure that is both supportive and progressive in redefining the lives of the millions of Americans currently living with disabilities.
Established in 1974, SourceAmerica creates job opportunities for a skilled and dedicated workforce: people with significant disabilities. We are the vital link between this exceptional workforce, a network of more than 1,000 community-based nonprofits, and the federal government and commercial companies that need the products and services this workforce provides. Headquartered in Vienna, VA, SourceAmerica provides the agency network with business development, contract management, legislative and regulatory assistance, communications and public relations materials, information technology support, engineering and technical assistance, and extensive professional training needed for successful nonprofit management. SourceAmerica is an AbilityOne® authorized enterprise