THE BLOG

A Better Bottom Line: Employing Individuals With Disabilities

08/13/2013 12:32 pm ET | Updated Oct 13, 2013

Ten years ago, I met a 25-year-old employee of Bank of America in Delaware. He had Down Syndrome and was enthusiastically making t-shirts on a silk screen press. He told me how thrilled he was to be working.

I asked him what he had done before getting that job. He told me he had sat at home for six years watching TV with his parents. And during that time, his parents watched after their disheartened son.

This is the reality for too many Americans with disabilities and their families. Twenty-three years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, only 20 percent of the 54 million Americans living with a disability are employed or seeking employment, compared to almost 70 percent of people without disabilities.

It's time, once and for all, to move the needle. That's why I recently released my "A Better Bottom Line: Employing Individuals with Disabilities" blueprint for governors at the conclusion of my one-year tenure as Chair of the National Governors Association.

This blueprint is not about feel-good social policy. As Greg Wasson, CEO of Walgreens, has told his peers, Walgreens employs people with disabilities not out of charity, but as a business decision.

At Walgreens' distribution facilities in Connecticut and South Carolina, approximately half of the employees have disabilities. And those two centers perform as well as, if not better than, any other facility in the Walgreens supply chain.

At Acadia Windows and Doors in Maryland, six out of 60 employees have disabilities. Neill Christopher, the company's vice president, said he resisted hiring the first employee with a disability out of a fear that window manufacturing is too dangerous. Now, several employees later, he reports that the company operates safer than ever and that his new employees not only make the company better, but also kinder.

CAI, a regional IT company, has committed to making people with autism 3 percent of its consultant base within three years. SAP, the mammoth enterprise software company, has made a similar commitment. Both companies have done so because they recognize that many people with autism excel at software testing.

My blueprint is designed to give governors tools to increase employment of people with disabilities in their states. Based on input from business leaders, it suggests that states change their approach. Historically, our Divisions of Vocational Rehabilitation have asked companies to do a favor to those with disabilities by offering them a job. That will change. In the future, our Departments of Labor will seek to be real business partners to companies looking to hire people with particular skills. Some of those people recommended may have disabilities and some may not. But the real focus will be on the ability and not the disability.

In addition, states must do a better job of preparing our youth with disabilities. Too often in the past, there has been an expectation that they would sign up at 17 or 18 for a lifetime on public benefits. No more. Now our young people will know that we have an expectation that they will find work and even a career. They will be educated and have access to career exploration opportunities accordingly.

In an era when there seems to be so little common ground between Democrats and Republicans, this issue stands apart. For my blueprint, I teamed up with South Dakota Republican Governor Dennis Daugaard, a remarkable man who grew up in South Dakota with two parents who are deaf.

Federal officials as far apart as Democrat Senator Tom Harkin and Republican members of congress Pete Sessions and Cathy McMorris Rodgers are working together on this issue.

And when I testified at the Senate HELP Committee at the invitation of Senator Harkin, I was approached afterward by Republican Senator Lamar Alexander. He told me how much he appreciated that our approach is focused on how states can help businesses identify, hire and retain people with disabilities rather than how we can extract more federal government money for additional social programs.

In fact, that's one reason that our initiative is a real win-win-win. Not only will the individuals themselves have a sense of purpose and know what it's like to be productive. Not only will their family members have a chance to live fuller lives themselves. But in addition to that, taxpayers win. Instead of spending millions of dollars on benefits and welfare for people with disabilities, many of these budding employees and entrepreneurs will turn into productive taxpayers themselves. And that's something that liberals and conservatives alike should embrace.

All it takes is for companies throughout the country to follow the lead of businesses like Bank of America, Walgreens, Acadia Windows, CAI and SAP, who are all employing skilled people like the 25-year-old I met a few years ago.

Jack Markell is in his second term as governor of Delaware. He previously served three terms as the state's treasurer and was the 13th employee at Nextel (a name he coined), where he served as senior vice president for corporate development.