Across the country, disabled Americans are struggling with high unemployment. And companies might be suffering because of it.
In 2007, when Walgreens was building a high-tech distribution center in South Carolina, the retailer wanted 30 percent of the 800 jobs to be filled by disabled job-seekers. Not only did they beat that goal, but the center operated 20 percent more efficiently than other similar centers, according to a recent report from the Kessler Foundation, the National Organization on Disability and the Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University.
Since that success, other major companies -- including Best Buy, Toys R Us and Lowe’s -- have followed suit, adopting similar models and taking advantage of programs that help match disabled job-seekers with companies looking to hire.
Unfortunately, an accessible path to employment isn’t the norm for Americans with disabilities. Only 32 percent of working-age Americans with disabilities were part of the labor force as of last month. That's even less than before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The reason for the low employment levels? Americans with disabilities still face widespread discrimination when it comes to employment. Such barriers can have dire consequences. Today, Americans with disabilities are twice as likely to end up in poverty.
Democratic Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa has made the issue a top priority. He told reporters on Thursday -- the 22-year anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act -- that he is hoping to add 1 million people with disabilities to the workforce by 2015. Harkin said he hopes to achieve that 20 percent increase by working with businesses, government and nonprofits alike.
The federal government has already taken some action. Last year, the Labor Department proposed a rule requiring at least 7 percent of the workforce of companies with federal contracts to be made up of workers with disabilities.