Dear ABILITY readers,
Recently, I gave the keynote address at the US Chamber of Commerce’s Corporate Disability Employment Summit in Washington, DC. During my talk, I sounded the alarm on a disturbing trend: more than two thirds of Americans with disabilities are without a job, and adults with disabilities are leaving the labor force at more than 10 times the rate of adults without disabilities during this recession. This is unconscionable.
I asked the CEOs in attendance to help fulfill the promise of equality made by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), by raising the number of workers with disabilities in the workforce to six million by the year 2015. Having grown up with a deaf older brother, Frank, I am particularly proud to have played a leadership role in crafting the ADA. My involvement in that endeavor has been a highlight of my career.
Like a lot of people with disabilities of his generation, my brother experienced discrimination and faced low expectations. It took a long time for him to find a job best suited to his abilities. Eventually, he landed a job at a manufacturing plant in Des Moines, working for Delavan Corporation. Mr. Delavan had decided he wanted to hire people with disabilities, and my brother was eager to work for him.
Frank became a drill press operator, making nozzles for jet engines. It was a great job, and there was never any doubt Frank took enormous pride in his work.
One Christmas, when I was on leave from the Navy, I went with Frank to visit the Delavan plant. I was told the company would be hosting a Christmas dinner. I didn’t expect anything special. As it turned out, the company honored Frank that night: during his 10 years at Delavan, he had not missed a single day of work, and hadn’t been late once.
In crafting the ADA, our goal as public servants was to create more opportunities for people like my brother—and for all people with disabilities—to demonstrate what they could do. Too many Americans with disabilities remain held back by public or private fears, myths and stereotypes associated with their differences.
I remain committed to doing everything in my power to advance the four important goals set forth by Congress with the establishment of the ADA: equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency.
My central priority, as we enter the third decade since implementation of the ADA, is to improve employment opportunities and outcomes for people with disabilities. Thanks in large part to the ADA and this country’s special education laws, we are now producing the best-educated people with disabilities in the history of the United States. And yet, while the majority of Americans with disabilities would like to be working, more than two thirds are not.
In the last two years alone, unemployment has proven disproportionately higher for workers with disabilities than for workers who don’t have them. The size of the disability workforce has shrunk from 5.3 million in March 2009 to about 4.9 million workers this year, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Compared to broader labor-force trends, this drop illustrates that more than one in three American adults who have left the labor force in the last two years have been people with disabilities.
Although this disturbing trend has not received much attention from policymakers or from the public, it carries with it a momentous budgetary and social cost. As more Americans with disabilities leave the workforce, the number of applications for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits increases, growing from an average of 200,000 new applications per month at the beginning of 2008, to roughly 250,000 per month by the end of 2010.
If we work together, I believe we can increase the number of adults with disabilities participating in the labor force to six million over the next four years. An expansion of the disability workforce by more than 1,000,000 workers in the next few years is achievable if we are willing to get serious about making it happen.
When I spoke to CEOs at last month’s US Chamber’s Disability Summit, I asked for ideas and collaboration so that our policies might produce real results on the ground—results that mean jobs for people with disabilities and a strong, talented and loyal workforce for businesses. If federal policies stand in the way of these efforts, I want to hear about them. Making a measurable impact on disability employment numbers is one of my top priorities, and will remain so as long as I am in the Senate.
Senator Tom Harkin
Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) is Chairman of the
Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee