Make a Commitment

Senator Tom HarkinDear ABILITY readers,

At the beginning of every new year, millions of Americans make resolutions to live better. They plan to eat healthier, lose weight, quit smoking and/or step up their volunteer work. As we begin 2014, I propose that we make an additional, collective resolution: to renew our commitment to creating employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

While greater inclusion and accessibility have improved by leaps and bounds in the 24 years since the passage of the ADA, the low employment rate of Americans with disabilities remains one of our country’s most pressing issues. Indeed, more than two thirds of working-age adults with disabilities are not in the labor force. That’s something we can and must change.

As chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, one of my central priorities has been to improve employment opportunities for people with disabilities. Since 2011, I’ve been working with the US Chamber of Commerce, disability advocates, and the business community to keep this issue front and center. By 2015, our shared goal is to increase the employment of individuals with disabilities by 1 million, a goal that can only be reached if we all commit to it.

In the last two years, the HELP committee has released three major reports that take a closer look at the challenges that still exist, and the meaningful actions we can take to expand Americans with disabilities’ employment opportunities.

A July 2012 report titled, “Unfinished Business: Making Employment of People with Disabilities a National Priority,” outlined the current challenges and policy recommendations that would help increase this labor force participation. The report noted the strong and growing bipartisan leadership from both the public and private sectors, identifying four key findings:

  • In June 2012, just 32 percent of working-age people with disabilities were participating in the labor force, compared with 78 percent of those without disabilities.
  • Between July 2008 and December 2010, workers with disabilities left the labor force at a rate five times greater than workers without a disability.
  • The median earnings for workers with disabilities is less than two-thirds the median wages for workers without disabilities: In 2010, workers with disabilities made $19,500 versus $29,997 for workers with out disabilities.
  • Individuals with disabilities also experience a disproportionate level of poverty because of their low employment participation and earnings rates, their underemployment, and the meager federal disability cash benefits they receive. In 2010, the poverty rate for working age adults with disabilities in the US was 27 percent, while the poverty rate for working age adults without disabilities was 13 percent.

In the report, we outlined four ways that we can make significant progress in addressing these challenges:

  • Improve outcomes in competitive, integrated employment for youth and young adults who are transitioning from school to higher education and work;
  • Increase contracting opportunities for disability owned businesses;
  • Create incentives for states to develop and test innovative initiatives that can lay the foundation for modernizing our largest programs and provide income support, health care, and long-term service to our citizens with disabilities; and
  • Encourage savings and wage support that will help people with disabilities leave poverty and enter the middle class.

In July 2013, we followed up with a report titled, “Separate and Unequal: States Fail to Fulfill the Community Living Promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act.” It highlighted the continued need for integration of employees with disabilities, and a system that inappropriately places young people with disabilities in nursing homes. Such discrimination is unfair and holds many back from the opportunities that result from economic independence and full inclusion.

Most recently, the Senate HELP Committee released a report last fall titled, “High Expectations: Transforming the American Workforce as the ADA Generation Comes of Age.” In it, we note the progress made by the millions of young men and women with disabilities who have become adults since the ADA was passed. But we also outline the challenges that still exist and continue to threaten these young people’s livelihoods and longer-term career prospects.

The ‘ADA Generation’ report identifies key areas to improve, such as increasing support for students as they prepare to enter college and the workforce. Additionally, disability benefit programs should stop discouraging young people with disabilities from working, and more should be done to correct misconceptions about employing people with disabilities. The report emphasizes the need to build strong pipelines from school to work, and establish supportive workplaces where young people can thrive.

Moving towards equal opportunity and full societal participation including independent living and economic self-sufficiency—are essential for this young generation to achieve the broader goal of improving job opportunities for all people with disabilities.

This year we need to act upon the information in these reports. By taking what we’ve learned and turning these lessons into policy solutions at national, state and local levels, we can make the progress needed to ensure that all people with disabilities can find fulfilling, well-paid jobs that help them meet the goals of the ADA.

In 2014, I plan to continue to work with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, as well as leaders and advocates around the country to eliminate the barriers that stand in the way of a truly competitive workforce. In his role as US Secretary of Labor, Tom Perez has been a great partner, pledging to continue the push to expand employment opportunities for Americans with disabilities. Working together, we can turn proposals into action and strengthen our communities and economy. Americans with disabilities deserve nothing less.


Senator Tom Harkin

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

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