The ADA Generation

Senator HarkinDear ABILITY readers,

Many of the stories in this magazine are a testament to the progress our nation has made since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Yet for numerous Americans who came of age since the law was enacted in 1990, one stubborn challenge remains before we can achieve full equality for all: employment.—

My report on the ADA Generation—the young men and women who have come of age since the law’s passage—offers bold steps to improve the opportunities of these young Americans as they seek competitive employment, where individuals with and without disabilities are integrated alongside one another.

This rising group inspires me every day, and these young men and women are the reason I’m so optimistic that we can achieve full equality. While it’s regrettably true that we continue to see low labor force participation among people with disabilities as a whole, this new generation is well equipped to break that barrier. They have already attained unprecedented education levels in inclusive settings, and now rightfully expect to become valued members of the American workforce.—

As chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, I continue to make it a top priority to improve employment prospects for all people with disabilities—including the ADA Generation. Investing in these talented and motivated young people will help them succeed and strengthen our nation’s long-term economic growth.

My new report takes a closer look at this population, including their experiences with education, disability benefit and-transition programs, and participation in the workforce. The report outlines four key areas of opportunity to improve support for members of the ADA Generation:

• Increasing support for high school students as they transition into the work force;
• Improving their experience as they enter post-secondary education and the labor market;
• Changing the requirements in disability benefits that may discourage young people with disabilities from working; and
• Leveraging employer demand, while establishing supportive workplaces.

Preparing the ADA Generation to compete in today’s labor force must begin while they are still in school. Providing them access to early work experiences and internships are just two ways that will help them succeed. In my role as HELP Committee Chairman, I recently worked to re-authorize the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to help ensure young people with disabilities have increased preparation and opportunities.

Higher education plays a critical role in helping young people attain employment, and that is especially true for young people with disabilities—yet only 15 percent of high school graduates with disabilities attend a four year college, compared to over 30 percent of the general population. Connecting our talented young people to appropriate post-secondary opportunities, including certificate programs, career and technical training opportunities, community colleges, and two- and four year degree programs, will help them enter the labor market with the skills and knowledge they need to compete successfully.—

Changing the incentives of disability benefit programs is another critical priority we must take up to help the ADA Generation succeed. Under the current system, people with disabilities must prove they cannot and will not be able to earn enough to support themselves to receive personal attendant services and other supports that allow them to be independent. This essentially commits them to a lifetime of poverty. We need to modernize these programs so that these young people are not punished for wanting to work.

Finally, we need to ensure that once young people find good-paying jobs, they have the support they need to grow and succeed in their chosen careers. We need to build a pipeline that connects these young people with opportunities and employment services that remain in place for the duration of their working lives.

Another barrier to employment the ADA generation faces is the perceived costs of workplace accommodations. Employers often overestimate these costs, while underestimating the contributions workers with a disability can make. In actuality, nearly 80 percent of workplace accommodations cost less than $1,000, and studies show that hiring employees with disabilities can increase business productivity and decrease absenteeism.—

In fact, young people with disabilities often thrive in competitive environments and leadership positions, adding value to the workplace far beyond the costs of any accommodations they need. Correcting these misconceptions will help to ensure that good-paying jobs are open to the talented members of the ADA Generation who are eager to take them on.

My report on this is just a first step. I plan

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to continue to work with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, as well as leaders and advocates around the country to break down the barriers to full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency the birthright of this up-and-coming generation.


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Senator Tom Harkin

Senator Tom Harkin
Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) is Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor Pensions Committee

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