Editor’s note: This blog post was adapted from remarks delivered at “Building a More Inclusive Workforce: A National Summit to Boost Education and Employment Outcomes for Americans with Disabilities” in Wilmington, Del., on May 31, 2013.
President Obama has said that the middle class is the engine of America’s economic growth and that we must grow our country from the middle class out, not the top down. Americans with disabilities are an integral part of that strategy.
While the Labor Department is among the federal government’s most important resources for people with disabilities, their employment situation deserves far more attention than government alone can provide.
Currently, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is 12.7 percent, compared to a 7.5 percent national average. Even more alarmingly, only one-fifth (20.7 percent) of people with disabilities are participating in the labor force. The workforce is also aging. As it does, more and more workers will find themselves living with disabilities. That’s just a fact of the human condition.
Considerable barriers remain to people with disabilities finding and keeping good jobs, but we know three areas where government, employers, foundations and other engaged stakeholders can make a difference.
Empowering people − including those with disabilities − with the skills they need to perform the jobs of the future is at the top of the list. On average, people with disabilities are less likely to have attended college or to have graduated from high school than people without disabilities.
The Labor Department is working on this issue in collaboration with other federal agencies. Over the last several years, we have awarded more than $63 million to 23 states under the Disability Employment Initiative. The initiative seeks to improve education, training and employment opportunities for young adults, as well as adults who are currently receiving Social Security Disability Insurance or Supplemental Security Income benefits, through the department’s 2,700 American Job Centers across the country.
But our efforts can only reach so far. We need employers to take a proactive approach to hiring, retaining and training employees with disabilities by establishing inclusive workplace policies and practices. They can adopt workplace flexibility strategies and productivity tools, including assistive technologies, and they can encourage employees to ask for accommodations as soon as they need them.
Another barrier is health care. For too long, people with disabilities have faced a dilemma: stay on public assistance programs that ensure they have health insurance like Medicare or Medicaid; or enter the labor market and face the possibility that the jobs they find will offer no coverage.
I’m proud to note that the passage of the Affordable Care Act means that people with disabilities will no longer be forced to rely on public assistance to ensure that they have health insurance. Instead, they can look for work knowing they will have access to affordable health care options whether their employers provide it or not. And employers will be able to hire people with disabilities without fear they will be denied coverage by health insurance providers. The era of discrimination on the basis of preexisting conditions is over.
Finally, workplace discrimination is still a reality for millions of Americans with disabilities. We know that even when people with disabilities are highly educated and highly skilled, they often do not get the same opportunities in the workplace.
That’s why the department’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs has proposed regulations that would, for the first time, set meaningful goals for employment of people with disabilities by federal contractors. Referred to as the “503 regulation,” this proposed rule sets targeted hiring goals and replaces good-faith efforts with effective hiring strategies. It will make a profound difference, moving the needle on employer behavior throughout the economy.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to these challenges. But by working together, business and government, employers and foundations, state and local officials, and faith-based organizations can create the opportunities Americans with disabilities deserve.
Seth Harris is the acting secretary of labor.