THE BLOG

Creating a Better Baltimore

04/28/2015 02:47 pm ET | Updated Jun 28, 2015

My heart is bleeding for the people of Baltimore and other communities who are struggling with challenges. We have been paying attention to police violence in Maryland for some time. While we focus on disability issues, we are all a part of our community overall.

When a young man with Down syndrome was killed by police in Maryland, it was not an isolated incident. Likewise, too many innocents of all abilities and races are being killed. And still, we recognize and value the role of police and the good intentions of the vast majority of those in law enforcement. No grievance -- no matter how big or how real -- ever justifies violent attacks on innocent people or institutions.

We must stand up against violence, and do the hard work to create solutions. No one group can do this alone. We must break down silos and work together. However, we cannot afford to make the mistake of thinking this is just about the tragic killing of Freddie Gray. It is about finding holistic solutions.

Let's look at the disability community in Baltimore. Only 43 percent of working age people with disabilities (PwDs) aged 21 to 64 in Baltimore County are employed compared to approximately 80 percent of persons without disabilities. Additionally, only 27 percent of working age people with disabilities in Baltimore City are working compared to approximately 72 percent of people without disabilities. While the ADA and IDEA are necessary and vital laws, they are not sufficient to provide the opportunity outcomes needed by Americans with disabilities. As women and minorities still have a long way to go, they have been able to make significant strides in joining the workforce. Thus, the gap in workforce participation between those with and without disabilities has increased dramatically.

There are 69,060 people with disabilities ages 16-64 of working age in Baltimore City, representing 17.2 percent of that age cohort. However, only 18,330 of them are employed (26.5 percent). However, in 2012, vocational rehabilitation obtained only 2,506 jobs for people with disabilities in all of Maryland combined. Meanwhile, local employers need quality employees and, with the use of best practices, people with disabilities can offer the talent employers seek. Jobs are a part of community healing because they give people dignity, respect, income and community.

Through the Developmental Disabilities Council, APSE and SELN, Maryland has taken some steps towards "Employment First" for people with disabilities, but with limited success. Among the greatest barriers to the employment of PwDs are public attitudes, ignorance surrounding the issues, and a lack of awareness of best practices. Another major gap has been lack of funding for and implementation of proven programs. When spending has been allocated, such as the $252, 853,883 in stimulus funds to Baltimore City over the past 5 years, it helped some effective programs. However, with the recent passage of the Workforce Investment and Opportunities Act (WIOA), much more good can happen.

In Maryland and across the country programs such as Project SEARCH and PROMISE are implementing extraordinarily effective programs for young adults transitioning to the workplace. Many of those participants are young African American men. With WIOA, much more can finally be done. Meanwhile, due to the new Rule 503, starting this past January 1, 2015 all federal contractors have an obligation to make good faith efforts to ensure that 7 percent of all their employees in all job categories are people with disabilities. This presents opportunities for improvement -- if awareness and training is improved.

Ongoing low employment expectations, negative stereotypes and a lack of appropriate transition services combine to lead to lives of isolation, poverty, poor health outcomes and higher rates of both victimization of, and crime by, people with disabilities. Additionally, students with disabilities are far more likely to drop out. People with disabilities are also far more likely to smoke, face obesity and other physical and mental obstacles. People with disabilities have the most need but the least access.

Even so, the attitudes of some key employers are changing. As they begin to recognize the value that employing people with disabilities can bring to their bottom line, the percentage of PwDs becoming an essential part of Baltimore's workforce can significantly improve. To do this we must focus attention to the many positive outcomes that effective inclusive employment can produce. After all, companies have proven that people with disabilities can bring unique characteristics, innovations and talents to workplaces. Walgreens, E.Y. (formerly Ernst & Young), AMC Theaters and others have demonstrated that employees with disabilities are loyal, successful and help increase their bottom line. It's time for Baltimoreans with disabilities to no longer be denied the opportunity to succeed.

This is a long way of saying that we care deeply about police brutality and the need to stop violent actions. But while solving these problems are necessary, they are not sufficient to help the people of Baltimore. We care and want to be a part of the solution.