THE BLOG
03/18/2014 05:04 pm ET Updated May 18, 2014

Closing the Employment Gap for America's Largest Minority Group

While it never received the attention that came with the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act nearly a quarter century ago, the changes to the rules implementing Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act announced by the U.S. Labor Department last summer, which take effect this Monday, have the potential for far greater impact and scale than even the ADA in terms of employment.

Even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it took Affirmative Action in the decade of the 1970's to effect measurable change in employment for racial minorities and women.

Similarly, while the ADA accomplished a great deal, it has not gotten the job done on unemployment. The 503 rule change, which includes a seven-percent disability employment goal for those companies who do business with the federal government, has the potential to significantly narrow the persistent employment gap for people with disabilities.

If the nation's nearly 200,000 federal contractors embrace the historic opportunity before us, not only will more than 600,000 more people with disabilities soon have a job, employers also will reap the benefits of a more diverse, resilient, and creative workforce.

According to the last Harris Survey of Americans with Disabilities, the employment gap between people with and without disabilities has not changed appreciably since Harris began polling for the National Organization on Disability (NOD) in 1986, four years before the ADA. People with disabilities continue to be unemployed at a rate more than twice that of people without, despite the fact that the intervening decades have brought technological advances allowing even more people with disabilities to succeed in the workplace.

But the same poll revealed some cause for optimism, with the gap in educational achievement between people with and without disabilities narrowing to nearly zero. This is likely a function of a new generation of young people benefitting from the special education system created by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1974. Where education goes, employment follows.

Building on that momentum, this year's rule change to Section 503 of the Rehab Act represents the most sweeping public policy shift favoring the employment of people with disabilities since the ADA, and perhaps in history. What's truly elegant about the rule changes is that they emphasize action, with a minimum of bureaucratic requirements. Employers need not engage in extensive paper-based exercises. But - because we know that what matters gets measured - contractors will be required to offer applicants and existing employees the option to self-identify as having a disability, track that data, assess their hiring and employment practices, and make improvements if they don't meet the goals.

And for federal contractors worried about their ability to meet these goals, intermediaries such as the National Organization on Disability can help. In partnership with the National Business and Disability Council (NBDC) and Sirota, we recently launched what we call the Disability Employment Tracker. Already more than 50 companies - mostly federal contractors - have signed up for this self-assessment tool, which gives companies a clear, actionable roadmap for improvements to their disability employment programs. It also helps them gauge their practices against those of other employers, enabling companies who want to be "employers of choice" for people with disabilities, and leaders among their peers, to see how they stack up. We were pleased to learn that nearly three-quarters of those employers who took the Tracker self-evaluation already have a written diversity policy that references individuals with disabilities. That's a critical first step, and one that we hope is indicative of progress to follow.

Each year, those of us in the disability community attend commemorative events on July 26th, the anniversary of the ADA. For those 600,000 people with disabilities who may find employment as a result of the DOL rule change, I'd like to think March 24th will be a special day of commemoration for them, and for all of us who are working hard to finally close that employment gap.

Carol Glazer is president of the National Organization on Disability, a private, non-profit organization that promotes the full participation and contributions of America's 56 million people with disabilities in all aspects of life. To learn more, visit. www.NOD.org.