It was 24 years ago on July 26 that President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law. It was the year I graduated high school, a year and a half after sustaining a C4-C5 spinal cord injury.
Since that time our nation has seen a number of decisions related to the ADA and the workplace as our justice system has worked to identify a balance between the rights and responsibilities of workers with disabilities and their employers. During the same time we have seen a fairly consistent slide in the employment rate of workers with disabilities.
I believe in 2014 the needle will start to move for people with disabilities in the workplace for five reasons. First, earlier this year the Department of Labor released final Section 503 regulations that require federal contractors and subcontractors to account for, proactively hire and track the advancement of workers with disabilities -- as they already must do with other minority groups.
Section 503 is a tremendous feat. Under the rules, the nation's 250,000-plus federal contractors and subcontractors are tasked with working towards a seven percent workforce goal of employees with disabilities. While the legislation doesn't officially penalize employers who do not follow these guidelines, the rules create an opportunity to bring about significant change in the employment rate of working-age Americans with disabilities, which was 13.2 percent in 2013, vs. 7.1 percent for those without disabilities.
Another positive is that in 2010, President Obama signed executive order 13548, which requires the federal government to hire 100,000 new employees with disabilities by 2015. Progress has been made: 2012 data shows 219,578 federal workers are people with disabilities; of these, around 35,000 workers, or 16 percent, are new hires. The number of federal employees with disabilities has increased to nearly 12 percent of all federal employees in 2013, up from seven percent in 2010.
The third and most exciting change this year is that we're now seeing many states truly take steps to become a State As a Model Employer. States like Oregon and Illinois are preparing to serve the demand side -- businesses within their states that are looking to diversify their workforce -- while creating more supply-side opportunities to build their pipeline of candidates with disabilities from which businesses can recruit.
On July 22, the president will also sign the bipartisan Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act to help workers, including workers with disabilities, access employment, education, job training and support services.
There's a fourth, though less talked about, dynamic that's changing too. States and the federal government are looking at ways to more effectively transition people with disabilities back to the workplace after years of being unemployed and accruing federal disability benefits, including healthcare.
The reality is, the financial power of a person with a disability who transitions off of support programs and returns to work is much higher than one who stays on benefits and doesn't work. Putting more people back into the workplace saves the government and states millions of dollars a year in benefits and boosts their tax revenue base.
This is a complex matter that doesn't have a clear-cut answer yet, but 2014 could prove to be a perfect storm in how we as a nation approach this issue. Today, governments and businesses are working together on return to workplace initiatives that allow people with disabilities to slowly transition off of financial benefits while maintaining healthcare services. Project SEARCH and state Medicaid Buy-In programs are examples.
The fifth and final piece of the pie is individuals with disabilities, who are now able to proactively seize on hiring opportunities and take ownership of their own participation in the workforce. They are working with Think Beyond the Label and other private-public networks that can provide recruiting and placement services, career fairs and other types of assistance as they hunt for gainful employment. These types of networks didn't exist 24 years ago.
As the government and states start to see the financial ramifications of disability employment on their budgets, and as businesses -- led by Section 503 regulations -- start to see how becoming a more inclusive employer also will help them potentially win more government business, the current employment landscape for people with disabilities will be transformed in a way that we've never seen before.
This July 26 is certainly a day for our nation to take stock of and celebrate our achievements. It is also an occasion to continue to push forward on progressive change and achieve the ADA's intended purpose: To fully integrate workers with disabilities into the broader fabric of community and make America a true leader in inclusivity and diversity.
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