Online Dialogue Examines Hiring People with Disabilities

Reconciling ‘Employment First’ motto with job readiness is key issue

By Susan Milligan Aug 15, 2014

It’s been more than 24 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law, banning job discrimination against people with disabilities and guaranteeing them “reasonable accommodations” to ensure that they can do their work. 

Yet the U.S. employment rate among people with disabilities has dropped—from 39.5 percent of 21- to 64-year-olds in 2008 to 33.5 percent in 2012, according to U.S. Census statistics analyzed by Cornell University. What can state governments do to encourage hiring people with disabilities in the public and private sectors?

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) recently posed that question in an online brainstorming session. Participants overwhelmingly agreed that what’s needed is education and training—not just for people with disabilities but also for the state governments and businesses that could hire them. 

A key issue raised during the online forum was this: How can states and businesses best adhere to the idea of “Employment First”—ODEP’s goal of focusing on hiring people, then adjusting the work environment to their needs—while still ensuring that people with disabilities have the proper training, education and skills to do the job in the first place?

“At ODEP, we talk a lot about the idea of ‘Employment First,’ ” said Kathy Martinez, ODEP’s assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy, in an interview. “But making that a reality requires a combination of policies, action and funding that must be aligned and that requires a great deal of coordination” among state and federal governments and employers. Martinez’s office will compile the online ideas into a report to help federally funded state employment centers.

“Oftentimes, when you’re working with an individual facing challenges, you start to [worry about] their barriers without saying [that] employment should be the first thing you consider,” said Joan K. Evans, director of the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services, in an interview. Evans’ agency referred some 700 people with disabilities to jobs last year.

Commenters on the online forum argued that schools should do more to prepare people for appropriate jobs. Many K-12 programs have cut back on auto shop or other vocational training, noted one poster, who suggested that schools could be partnering with union shops or businesses to help teach young people those skills. 

Other commenters noted that many people with disabilities need training in computer and other contemporary business skills; however, they may need to be trained in a different way or in a different setting. “Vocational training and work skills will not just ‘trickle down,’ ” one poster noted. “How will our disabled adult children be ready for ‘Employment First’ if they have never been taught these skills?”

Employers need to be educated as well, commenters noted. The ADA requires businesses with 15 or more employees to provide “reasonable accommodations” to workers with disabilities as long as this doesn’t pose an “undue hardship.” But employers often don’t realize that a person’s disability may end up being a strength, advocates said. 

Sen. Tom Harkin, D- Iowa, author of the ADA, tells the story of how his deaf brother, Frank, excelled at his job at an aircraft manufacturing plant because he could do delicate work without being distracted by loud noises. The plant owner was so impressed that he hired more deaf workers, according to the senator.

In Ohio, a man with a developmental disability thrived on routine and order—making him perfect for a job meticulously arranging surgical instrument trays for doctors at a large hospital, Evans said. She further noted that the retention rate is higher for people with disabilities than for those who have none. 

States are still battling to improve their numbers on hiring people with disabilities, especially since states save money on public assistance the more they put people to work. Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat,recently signed an executive order requiring that at least 7 percent of the state government workforce be made up of people with disabilities. Just 3 percent of the current state workforce has disabilities, down from 10 percent in 1999.And New York recently adopted a law providing additional tax credits to businesses that hire people with developmental disabilities.

“I think for a few people, ‘accommodation’ has a negative connotation, but it shouldn’t be that way. An accommodation is just a productivity tool,” Martinez said. “Everybody has a part to play—federal government, state and local governments, employers, advocates.”

Susan Milligan is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.


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