25 Years Later, People With Disabilities Push for Economic Equality

The U.S economy received welcome news recently with a dip in the unemployment rate to the lowest level in several years. But while employer hiring is robust, it is sorely lacking for at least one demographic of Americans.

Far too many work-aged people with disabilities are struggling to find employment. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, unemployment in June among adults with disabilities was 9.3 percent, significantly higher than the national average of 5.3 percent. The labor participation rate hovered at 20 percent for people with disabilities, compared to 69.1 percent for those without.

The unacceptable unemployment situation for adults with disabilities is a troubling irony as the nation prepares to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The landmark civil rights legislation, signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990, outlawed discrimination on the basis of disability.

The text of the law laid bare the hurdles that people with disabilities faced at the time. "Discrimination against individuals with disabilities persists in such critical areas as employment, housing, public accommodations, education, transportation, communication, recreation, institutionalization, health services, voting, and access to public services," the law said.

The ADA established the nation's goals for individuals with disabilities "to assure equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for such individuals."

The law affirmed that discrimination and prejudice denies people with disabilities the opportunity to compete. But it also recognized the huge societal downside of keeping people with disabilities on the margins -- workplace discrimination costs the country billions of dollars resulting from dependency and nonproductivity.

While major progress has been made over the last quarter century as is evidenced by lifts on public buses, trained drivers who call out stops, talking crosswalks and more, much work remains -- and most certainly in the area of employment.

"Employment is one of the most important pathways to economic self-sufficiency and independence for Americans," says the National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency. "Yet people with disabilities experience higher unemployment and lower pay rates than those without disabilities."

Bureau of Labor Statistics data tell the story. In a report covering 2014, the government found the following:

• Across all age groups, persons with a disability were more likely to be out of the labor force than those with no disability.
• At all levels of education, persons with a disability were much less likely to be employed than were their counterparts with no disability.

• For those with disabilities, the unemployment rates were higher among blacks (21.6 percent) and Hispanics (16.1 percent) than among whites (11.2 percent) and Asians (8.6 percent).

While the economic climate has improved since the Great Recession of 2008, people with disabilities have experienced stagnated levels of employment, especially full-time employment, compared to people without disabilities.

Contributing to the hiring hurdles faced by this community is the belief among some employers that hiring those with disabilities will cost a company more in terms of providing accommodations. But as the Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy found, hiring adults with disabilities reduces recruitment expenses, avoids the losses of unfilled positions, and reduces turnover with employees who tend to stay longer. Once recruited, people with disabilities require little or no cost to accommodate.

In fairness to U.S. employers, many may not know how to go about recruiting potential workers with disabilities. For that reason, organizations like mine, which was on the front lines helping to get the ADA approved by Congress and signed into law, believe that the next phase of civil rights for people with disabilities will be matching employers to employees and providing support on recruiting, accommodating, retaining and advancing employees once they are hired.

"The most significant barrier keeping people with disabilities from the workplace is attitudinal," the Government Accountability Office concluded in a 2011 report that is as current today. "There is a fundamental need to change the attitudes of hiring managers, supervisors, coworkers, and prospective employees."

Attitudes of employers have improved since 1990 when the ADA became the law of the land. But as the employment data underscore, extending economic opportunity to Americans with disabilities will require a recommitment to the principles of fairness and equality that carried the day 25 years ago.

Rutta is president and CEO of Easter Seals.