Trying to Make it Work

Senator Harkin Dear ABILITY readers,

Now into the 23rd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), it’s important that we take stock of the progress we’ve made in fulfilling its promise. While we’ve come a long way in our efforts to integrate people with disabilities into mainstream society, we’ve yet to make adequate progress in the employment arena.

In the years since the ADA was signed, people with disabilities have continued to face stagnant employment numbers. Even as our economy recovers from the recent Great Recession, growth in new jobs has not yet reached this population. More than two-thirds of working-age adults with disabilities are not in the labor force. They aren’t even represented in the unemployment numbers because many have stopped looking for employment.

As I have said time and again, I believe the country is at a tipping point on this issue. Increased engagement from leaders in the public and private sectors—as well as within the disability community—have the potential to make a difference in the next few years. I have called on businesses to join me in pursuing the goal of increasing the disability workforce in America, from under 5 million today to 6 million by 2015.

In Wilmington, DE, I recently attended Building a More Inclusive Workforce: A National Summit to Boost Education and Employment Outcomes for Americans with Disabilities. The meeting was cohosted by Gov. Jack Markell, who is chair of the National Governors Association (NGA). The other cohosts included the Council on Foundations and the US Business Leadership Network.

The summit brought together key players from federal and state governments, philanthropy, business and the disability community. The goal was to develop strategies to get more Americans with disabilities into the labor force.

At the summit I heard, as I have many times before, that people with disabilities long for the opportunity to do meaningful work. Employing this population also improves the bottom line for many businesses. While making the connection between willing workers and eager companies can be difficult, there’s promise in public/private partnerships to improve education and employment outcomes for people with disabilities.

Here are highlights of what I learned at this incredible event:

Businesses have increased the number of job opportunities for people with disabilities and can serve as models for others. For instance, each of Walgreens’ 20 distribution centers has a workforce where 10 percent of employees have disabilities. Lowe’s and Best Buy have committed to major improvements in hiring workers with disabilities and Walmart says that it’ll hire more than 100,000 veterans—many of them with service related disabilities.

The philanthropic sector is poised to devote more financial resources to this challenge. Currently only 3 to 6 percent of the $47 billion that private foundations give annually goes to improving programming related to people with disabilities, according to the Foundation Center. However, several leading philanthropic organizations, among them The Chicago Community Trust and the Kessler Foundation, have developed programs and policies that simply include people with disabilities in programming and grant making activity. As more foundations follow suit, there is incredible potential to expand inclusion and participation of people with disabilities in the workplace through targeted giving and partnerships with the private sector.

Government at all levels is ready to work with both foundations and businesses to develop public/private partnerships that

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grow the disability labor force. As part of his yearlong NGA initiative, Markell also hosted two events in Pittsburgh and Seattle to foster better understanding of the challenges state governments face in creating employment opportunities for people with disabilities. With feedback from those events, as well as the recent summit, this body will create a blueprint for businesses and states that identify best practices for public/private partnerships.

Working together, I’m confident we can achieve unprecedented gains in labor force participation for people with disabilities, enhance the bottom lines of American companies and demonstrate for the world what’s possible in terms of empowering citizens with disabilities to live full and economically independent lives. The efforts of business, philanthropy, government and advocates demonstrate that we have the will and resources to get more employment for Americans with disabilities.

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Senator Tom Harkin

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

Articles in the Scott Baio Issue; Senator Harkin — Trying to Make it Work; Ashley Fiolek — Kickin’ up Dirt; Humor — Die Laughing; Geri Jewell — Pet Power; Eva Feldman, MD, PhD — ALS and Stem Cell Therapy; Beyond Silence — Deafness in India; Long Haul Paul — Q&A with a PA; Models of Diversity — Embrace it! ; Governor Markell — Blueprint to Employment; China — A Coach with Passion; EMPOWER — Global Inclusion; FREEJ — Grandmothers Rule; MIT — Leveraged Freedom Chair; Scott Baio — Happy Days; MADA — Global Assistive Technology; ABILITY’s Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences…subscribe

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