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Disability Employment: Are We at the Tipping Point?

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Later this month, when our country marks the 22nd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, many of the law's champions will lament that the employment situation for our citizens with disabilities has not improved since the ADA was signed.

In recent years, that situation has gotten worse. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the disability workforce shrank by over 10 percent during the recession, five times faster than the non-disability workforce, which shrank by only about two percent.

And BLS data released earlier this month reveal that as the rest of the workforce has slowly begun to recover, the disability workforce has lagged. The number of working age Americans without disabilities participating in the labor force grew by almost 3 million in the past year. During the same period, the number of workers with disabilities declined by 94,000. Even at the high water mark for disability employment before the recession, only 37 percent of working age adults with disabilities were in the labor force.

Today, in my role as chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, I am releasing a report urging Congress, the Administration, the business community, and society at large to make the issue of disability employment a national priority. Any of us can acquire a disability at any time, and all of us have a stake in making equal employment opportunity the rule rather than the exception.

As sobering as the disability employment statistics can be, I believe that we are on the verge of substantial gains in this area, provided we get serious about welcoming people with disabilities into the workforce.

Why the optimism?

First, we have a new generation of young people with disabilities entering the labor force. Unlike many in earlier generations, they grew up in integrated classrooms and accessible communities, expect to work in mainstream jobs and are unwilling to accept living in poverty with meager supports from the government. I have had the pleasure of having members of this generation intern in my office and testify before my Committee, and they give me great hope for the future of disability employment.

Add to this group the wounded warriors returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with a powerful desire to work and support their families, and you can see that we have a critical mass of disabled youth and young adults who are well positioned to drive change in the workplace.

Second, we are seeing public- and private-sector employers getting more serious about setting concrete goals and measuring their progress in the area of disability employment. In 2010, on the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), President Obama called on the federal government to hire an additional 100,000 workers with disabilities by 2015. Last year, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce called on the private sector to increase the disability labor force by over 1 million workers by 2015. And just yesterday, the new Chair of the National Governors Association (NGA), Jack Markell of Delaware, announced that boosting disability employment will be his signature issue during his tenure as the leader of the NGA.

Plus, the U.S. Department of Labor has issued a proposed rule calling on federal contractors to work toward the goal that at least seven percent of their workforce, at all levels, are people with disabilities. Companies including Walgreens, Lowe's and Best Buy did not wait for the Department of Labor's initiative, and were already setting ambitious goals for disability employment, and praising the business benefits that have come from their focused emphasis on recruiting, retaining and promoting this talent pool. These benefits include better productivity, fewer missed days of work, reduced turnover of personnel and innovative thinking.

Third, I am sensing a growing recognition in Washington that we should not force people with disabilities to prove they cannot work in order to be eligible for supports from the government. The 1956 definition of disability in the Social Security Act, and the entitlement programs that have grown up around that definition, need to be modernized so they are in alignment with the ADA's goals of equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency.

During my lifetime, I have seen the workforce open up for women, older workers, minorities and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans. I believe our country's ability to tap into the talent of its diverse population has spurred innovation and made us a global leader in so many areas. It is time to take the next step, to open wide the doors to the workplace for our citizens with disabilities. In doing so, we will increase our workforce diversity; tap into a valuable, talented, underutilized population, and marshal all of our available resources to maintain America's leadership in the global economy.