National Disability Employment Awareness Month: Removing Barriers and Low Expectations

October 30, 2017
Lance Robertson, ACL Administrator and Assistant Secretary for Aging

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and all month we've been celebrating the many contributions of workers with disabilities and highlighting some of our work to remove the barriers that often prevent people with disabilities from working.

At ACL, we have a vibrant workforce that benefits from the diversity of experiences contributed by people from all backgrounds, including many people with disabilities. Unfortunately, we are far from typical, and it is a sad fact that people with disabilities are far less likely to be working than their peers. The latest data from the Employment Policy and Measurement Rehabilitation and Research Training Center indicates that 33 percent of working-age people with disabilities participate in the labor force, compared to 77 percent of their peers without disabilities.

When people with disabilities don’t have opportunities to work, we all miss out.

  • People with disabilities miss out. Employment in integrated settings, and at competitive wages, offers a direct pathway to greater independence and self-sufficiency, and research suggests that people with disabilities are happier and healthier when they have the opportunity to work.

  • Employers miss out on a larger and more diverse talent pool to pick from when hiring. Workers with disabilities can bring unique perspectives, creativity, and loyalty to the workplace that can boost a business' bottom line.

  • As a country, we miss out when people with disabilities don’t have the chance to contribute as colleagues, business owners, and taxpayers.

We can’t afford to let that happen. 

At ACL we are working with our partners across federal government, with states and communities, and with people with disabilities to identify – and then demolish – the obstacles that keep people with disabilities out of the workforce.  

Frequently, the highest obstacles to employment are not physical. For example, businesses often believe reasonable accommodations are extremely difficult or costly to provide, and they shy away from hiring people with disabilities as a result. In fact, a survey of employers found that nearly 60% of accommodations cost nothing at all, and the rest had an average cost of $500.

Too often, the individual strengths, skills, and talents -- and potential -- of people with disabilities are underestimated. This is particularly true for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. We know that high expectations and high accomplishments go hand-in-hand, but children and young adults with disabilities are often not pushed to succeed in the same way their peers without disabilities are.

We have to change this – and we are. ACL is working hard to advance an “Employment First” approach, and we are excited to see it taking hold across the country. As laboratories of innovation, states and communities are experimenting with new models to make working in the community the preferred option for people with all types of disabilities. A central premise of “Employment First” is increasing expectations – both for people with disabilities and for our systems that help them access the opportunities they need to succeed.

That central premise is shared across all the work we do at ACL to increase employment opportunities for people with disabilities. Together with partners in the federal, state, and community levels, we are dismantling some of the other common barriers to employment, such as a lack of accessible transportation, difficulty finding programs and services that can help, and insufficient skills training. For example:

  • ACL’s Partnerships in Integrated Employment (PIE) grants are increasing collaboration across state systems in order to improve employment outcomes for people with developmental disabilities. As an example, ACL’s local PIE grantee, the DC’s Department on Disability Services, participates in Project SEARCH, a year-long school-to-work program led by local businesses that offers classroom and on-the-job training in an integrated workplace.

  • ACL’s inclusive transportation program connects people with disabilities and older adults with local transit planners to improve transportation options. Together with the Federal Transit Administration at the Department of Transportation, ACL sponsors a project, Transit Planning 4 All, to develop, test and demonstrate ways for older adults and people with disabilities to be actively involved in designing and implementing coordinated transportation systems. 

  • University Centers for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities and grantees of the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research are researching employment programs and practices, developing innovative service models, and using universal design principles to make workplaces more accessible.

  • Centers for Independent Living, which are run by and for people with disabilities, connect people with services, supports, and peer mentors to help them find jobs and succeed in the workplace, and State Councils on Developmental Disabilities help give people with disabilities and their families a voice in the policy-making process. Many DD Councils also support employment programs such as Project SEARCH.

Complementary work is underway throughout HHS and the federal government:

  • The Social Security Administration and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) have launched a “Ticket to Work” initiative that offers career development services for adults receiving Social Security Disability Insurance or Supplemental Security Income programs.

  • CMS’ Medicaid Buy-in initiative gives states the option of developing a Medicaid benefit group for workers with disabilities whose earnings prevent them from receiving services and supports through traditional Medicaid.
  • The Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy has a broad variety of programs, resources, and technical assistance centers to promote disability employment.

These are just a few of many examples.

Our country and our economy can't afford to overlook the potential that people with disabilities represent. NDEAM may be coming to a close, but our commitment to removing barriers to employment for people with disabilities is not. It is a year-round focus, and I am excited about what we can do, working together.

Last modified on 05/07/2020

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