Disability and Employment: Should We Be Doing More?

This is a guest post by Karl Cooper, an attorney and disability advocate who has spent most of his professional career addressing the needs of individuals with disabilities.

Earlier this month the National Governors Association (NGA) announced an initiative called “A Better Bottom Line: Employing People with Disabilities.” The initial report put out by the NGA identifies a need that is known all too well by those of us who have done disability advocacy—the fact that people with disabilities are disproportionately unemployed.

The NGA report cites statistics from the Department of Labor which indicate that only 20% of people with disabilities are in the workforce (i.e. are either employed or looking for work); whereas, 69% of the rest of the population is in the workforce. Further, the Labor Department reports that the unemployment rate among those people with disabilities that are in the workforce is almost twice as high as the rest of the population (in July it was 14.7% vs. 7.4%).

NGA Report

The evidence also suggests that when companies employ people with disabilities, it ends up being a good business decision as those individuals thrive in the new opportunity provided them. As a result, the company usually sees an increase in productivity and efficiency.

One of the shining examples of this practice exists at Walgreens distribution centers. In their two newest distribution centers in South Carolina and Connecticut, Walgreens built the facility with “universal design,” so they would be able to hire a higher percentage of people with disabilities to fill the positions at these centers.

As a result, 40% of the positions at these facilities were filled by people with disabilities. Walgreens reports that their absenteeism is down, while loyalty and efficiency are up. In other words, it makes good business sense to hire people with disabilities—in addition to being the right thing to do.

In light of these realities, it was disappointing to see a recent article in The Hill describing the construction industry’s opposition to increase the percentage of people with disabilities in the workforce. The regulations referenced in this article require contractors who do business with the government to report the percentage of people with disabilities in their applicant pool. The new regulations being considered essentially amount to a record-keeping requirement by the contractor to demonstrate that they are doing what they can to increase the number of people with disabilities they employ.

The construction industry argues that they have already done enough to increase the number of veterans and people with disabilities that are employed by their industry. To bolster their argument regarding people with disabilities, the construction industry points to a recent report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics which shows that almost the same percentage of people with disabilities work in the construction industry then those without disabilities. More specifically, of all the people with disabilities that are employed, 6.2% of them work in the construction industry while the percentage of people without disabilities that are employed in the construction industry is 6.3%. But the construction industry is just as responsible for the underemployment of the disability community as all the other industries. In other words, the total number of people with disabilities that are employed needs to go up—including those employed by the construction industry.

Whether or not the federal government should be getting involved in requiring companies to do more to increase the percentage of people with disabilities in their employment is a discussion for another day. However, as a disability advocate, my question is why are these regulations needed in the first place?

If the evidence suggests that it makes good business sense, shouldn’t businesses be doing all they can to hire people with disabilities? It’s disappointing because from a moral and business standpoint, the need for these types of regulations shouldn’t even exist. Unfortunately, the simple fact exists that people still hold stereotypes regarding people with disabilities and their ability to contribute to society in a meaningful way.

As Christians, we should do all we can to break these stereotypes and shine a light on the truth that people with disabilities do have something to contribute to society, and when they’re given that opportunity, they do so—many times to a higher degree than their counterparts who do not have a disability.

As Americans, we should be doing all we can to provide every member of society with an equal opportunity to improve their situation through holding a job and making that meaningful contribution.

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