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As an untapped and under-utilized resource in the U.S. labor market, individuals with a disabilities are far more likely to be unemployed than their able-bodied counterparts. Spreading awareness, however, can help a job seeker with disabilities beat challenging odds.

Persons with disability are an untapped and under-utilized resource in the United States

It’s a story we’ve heard over and over again during challenging economic times: I’ve gone to college or participated in job training. I’ve done everything right, but I still can’t find a job.

It’s a maddening situation for anyone who is in the job market while in tough economic times, but the situation that exists for most of us now has been historical fact of life for a segment of the population whose skills and abilities are often overlooked by potential employers – workers with disabilities.

October is “Disability Employment Awareness Month.” It shines a light on the multitude of practical questions about what prevents individuals with disabilities from becoming gainfully employed. Are the obstacles on the path to employment ones that can be fixed with effort, such as making more transportation options available or ensuring that all public buildings are fully-accessible?

Or, are the challenges the result of how others see disability – the erroneous assumption that employees with a disability may not be able to perform at the level of their potential co-workers?

Could it be blatant discrimination?

There are no simple answers, but there are some safeguards – many that can be put into place long before a young person goes out into the world to seek work – that can help ensure that a young individual with a disability can start a career, or obtain gainful employment.

Sobering statistics

To look at the data regarding unemployment, underemployment, poverty rates and education for individuals with disabilities, it’s difficult to understand why the situation is the way it is. It’s been more than 20 years since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was supposed to open doors for individuals with disabilities on the job front.

And while there has been improvement regarding employment, the fact is that many individuals with disabilities are locked out of the job market, according to a comprehensive analysis conducted at Cornell University in New York.

The data that Cornell researchers compiled in 2011 indicates:

  • Among workers aged 21 to 64 years old that met the legal definition of disability, 11.7 were actively looking for work. That means that an estimated 1.4 million individuals with disabilities out of 12.5 million in the United States were not working.
  • During 2011, only 20.7 percent of the individuals with disabilities that were 21 to 64 years old were employed full-time.
  • In 2011, 27.8 percent of persons aged 21 to 64 years old were living below the federal poverty line. The poverty guideline in 2010 was about $11,000 annually.
  • Supplemental Security Insurance benefits were given to 19.6 percent of individuals with a disability.

The U.S. Department of Labor Statistics also compiled some numbers that present a stark picture of labor participation among persons with disabilities. In August 2013, the unemployment rate for individuals with disabilities was 14.1 percent – that’s about 7 percentage points higher than the official jobless rate for the same period. Labor force numbers – which provide the only true measure of people working in the United States – indicate that 20.5 percent of individuals with disabilities participated in the labor force, versus 69.1 percent of individuals without disabilities, in August 2013.

For a parent of a child with disabilities, this data doesn’t inspire hope for their child’s future. For a person with disabilities, the numbers can be downright demoralizing. Individuals with disabilities have the same goals as everyone else – they want to work, pursue careers, have families, own homes, and have successful lives. They want to forge their own path; most individuals with disabilities see public assistance as something that should be supplementary, or an option that should be pursued only if a person’s disability precludes them from pursuing work.

We are all equal to the task

The theme of the 2013 National Disability Employment Awareness Month is “We are all equal to the task.” The message it sends is that individuals with disabilities bring a myriad of skills to the workplace that employers should be eager to take advantage of. Many have spent years in college; others have taken advantage of training opportunities that exist in the community.

The NDEAM is led by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Policy, which aims to set policy for employers that hire disabled individuals.

A person is considered disabled if he or she meets certain classifications under the law. These factors include whether a person has a physical or intellectual condition that impedes everyday activities; is blind or deaf; has mobility issues; has an emotional condition that makes it difficult to concentrate or remember tasks or events; or has trouble completing self-care tasks by him or herself.

But none of these conditions on their own means a person cannot work or be a valuable employee. The issues that prevent individuals with disabilities from obtaining employment is one that’s rooted in a person’s abilities and limitations. It’s a roadblock that exists among some employers.

Employers receive tax credits for hiring individuals with disabilities; they have been incentivized, but employment levels fall significantly below those of the general population.

What are the solutions?

Solutions to finding adequate employment for individuals with disabilities that are able to work are complex; at issue are not only a dismal job market, but also access to training programs. And, there’s the matter of people’s perceptions and attitudes.

Beyond the ADA and civil rights legislation, there is another important development in terms of identifying employment roadblocks. The National Organization on Disability, or NOD, and the National Business & Disability Council, or NBDC, have introduced the Disability n Tracker.

The tracker is a new assessment tool that will help organizations launch new processes or improve existing processes intended to attract, train and hire individuals with disabilities and veterans. The program was created in response to new legislation that mandates federal contractors to set goals of having individuals with disabilities comprise 7 percent of their workforces. The goal is set at 8 percent for veterans.

As part of the program, the NBDC will set up a resume database for individuals with disability and veterans; the listings will be available to help contractors locate qualified candidates.

In terms of private sector employment, little can be done to influence the hiring of individuals with disabilities, although these employers may not violate a person’s civil rights when making a hiring decision.

But there are some points that employers should heed in terms of disability in the workplace. They include:

  • Employers should specifically seek out individuals with disabilities
  • Interviewers should make sure they do not directly inquire about a candidate’s disability
  • Managers should be willing to comply with reasonable accommodation requests
  • All persons should understand ADA-mandated rules and how they relate to job functions
  • No one should ever assume that an individual with a disability is not employable
  • Employers should not assume that some jobs should be off limits to individuals with disabilities, or that other positions are suited for a person with disabilities
  • Employers should not assume that its insurance costs will increase because a staff member has a disability
  • Business owners should not assume a facility is accessible unless a profession has told them it is

Employees with disabilities are like any other staff member of an organization. He or she most likely wants to grow professionally, advance, strike a successful work-life balance, and take part in a profession that makes use of his or her abilities.

The importance of awareness

There’s bound to be a lot of talk about disability employment awareness. But awareness is a two-way-street for employers, and for job candidates. Awareness is about creating a conversation about disability, what it really means, and how it is not an impediment to work.

For job candidates, it means being willing to talk openly about a disability. If a job requires using a computer, the candidate should tell the recruiter how he or she uses a computer. If it requires physical labor, the candidate should tell the interviewer how he or she accomplishes physical movement. Being open helps remove a stigma – one that shouldn’t exist – but is nonetheless present.

For employers, awareness is about changing the conversation about disability. When it comes to finding the right candidate, it’s really about finding a set of abilities, not disabilities. It doesn’t mean a manager should hire someone with a disability that doesn’t meet his or her standards, it’s about recognizing that an employee with a disability may meet that standard by employing different techniques and strategies.

Awareness is needed because for all persons to move forward. To succeed, we need all hands on deck.


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