Progress slow for those with disabilities
WASHINGTON — Whether it means opening school track meets to deaf children or developing a new lunch menu with safe alternatives for students with food allergies, recent Obama administration decisions could significantly affect Americans with disabilities. But there's been little progress in one of the most stubborn challenges: employing the disabled.
According to government labor data, of the 29 million working-age Americans with a disability — those who are 16 years and older — 5.2 million are employed. That's 18 percent of the disabled population and is down from 20 percent four years ago. The employment rate for people without a disability was 63 percent in February.
The job numbers for the disabled haven't budged much since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which gave millions of disabled people civil rights protections and guaranteed equal opportunity in employment, public accommodations, transportation, government services and more.
The National Council on Disability's Jeff Rosen said longstanding prejudicial attitudes need to be addressed to boost jobs.
“Employers are still catching on to the fact that the needs of most workers with disabilities aren't special, but employees with disabilities often bring specialized skills to the workplace,” Rosen said. “Perhaps no one knows how to adapt, think critically or find solutions better than someone who has to do so daily in order to navigate a world that wasn't built with them in mind.”
Rosen, who is deaf, was named in January as chairman of the council, an independent federal agency that advises the president, Congress and other federal agencies on disability policy.
The Obama administration recently acted to expand the rights of Americans with disabilities in other areas.
The Education Department's civil rights division released new guidelines that direct schools to provide students with disabilities equal access to extracurricular sports teams. If schools can't, they should create similar athletic programs for disabled children, the department said.
The Justice Department said in a settlement with a Massachusetts college, Lesley University, that severe food allergies can be considered a disability under the law. That potentially could lead to new menus and accommodations at schools, restaurants and other places to address the needs of people with food allergies.
One silver lining in the lagging employment for the disabled has been federal hiring.
The latest data from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management shows nearly 15 percent of new federal hires between 2010 and 2011 were people with disabilities — almost 19,000 people. That's up from the previous year when about 10 percent of new hires were people with disabilities.
President Obama signed an executive order in 2010 aimed at improving the federal ranks of people with disabilities. The goal was to add 100,000 disabled people to federal payrolls in five years; that would be within reach if the 2010-11 hiring numbers were to stick or improve.
Federal agencies are trying to achieve the numbers through better recruitment, especially at colleges and universities. Last month, OPM issued rules to limit the paperwork that potential hires with disabilities would need to provide. They essentially “self-identify” as disabled by qualifying for a special hiring category known as “Schedule A” that allows disabled people to apply for a job through a noncompetitive hiring process, meaning they could be hired without competing with the general public.
The administration also is considering new rules that would leverage the power of federal spending to encourage companies to hire more disabled workers. The Labor Department is weighing a rule that would require companies with federal contracts to set a goal of having at least 7 percent of their ranks be workers with disabilities. Federal contractors employ nearly one-quarter of the nation's work force.
Since the rule was proposed more than a year ago, business groups have complained that it would be too burdensome and lead to conflicts with federal laws that discourage companies from asking job applicants to identify themselves as disabled.
“We have had a long history of supporting the disabled community,” said Randel Johnson, vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for labor issues. “But this proposal goes too far, woefully underestimates cost of compliance and is completely unworkable as structured in the proposal.”
Jennifer Lortie, 29, of Griswold, Conn., considers herself one of the lucky employed Americans with a disability.
Lortie was born with cerebral palsy and has limited use of her arms and legs. She graduated from college during the recession, and finding a job was no easy task.
She spent more than a year scouring newspapers and job-search websites and sending out dozens of resumes. She worried her wheelchair might be a strike against her until she landed a position in 2009 as an assistive technology specialist with the Connecticut Tech Act Project. The federally funded program aims to increase independence for people with disabilities by educating them on new and best-fit technologies for work, school and community living.
“I think helping people kind of makes me think maybe there's a reason that I am in a wheelchair,” Lortie said in an interview. “There has to be some reason to all this, so it gives me a sense of purpose as far as ‘OK, I'm in a wheelchair, but I can help other people' instead of just sitting home feeling sorry for myself.”
Lortie spends four hours each day commuting to work and then back to the home she shares with her parents. They drive her to the bus stop and then she takes two buses to get to work — two hours each morning and two hours at the end of the day to get home. And she doesn't mind a bit. “I like to help people,” she said.
Jill Houghton works with companies to expand employment for people with disabilities. Among the big barriers, she said, are concerns about cost. Companies worry about whether they'll have to make special accommodations or additional training and they want to know how much it's going to cost.
“The reality is that businesses have found that when they create inclusive workplaces, where people with disabilities are working side by side with people without disabilities ... the bottom line is that it doesn't increase costs,” said Houghton, who heads the U.S. Business Leadership Network, a trade association that represents about 5,000 businesses.
She said she has noticed a significant increase in calls and requests recently to the group from the business community about hiring people with disabilities.
Companies want to be inclusive of people with disabilities, Houghton said. “Businesses are learning that it just makes good business sense.”
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Oil’s rebound pushes up price at gas pumps
- Mylan rejects Teva’s $40 billion takeover bid
- Experts: If health insurers’ safeguard goes broke, consumers could pay
- Kings Family Restaurants sold to California firm
- Rules could kick door open for nuclear power
- Visa limits vex businesses
- California drought may be felt in Pittsburgh restaurants, groceries
- Paper’s prevalence unlikely to diminish
- Tech sector drives gains on Wall Street
- Scented society is killing cheap perfume industry
- Camera prevalence approaches sci-fi realm