By Kyle Ingram
October marks the 70th anniversary of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM).
For roughly 20 percent of Americans, disability is an important part of their reality. Often that reality involves being defined by disability and experiencing barriers to social inclusion and economic opportunity.
But people with disabilities are individuals first, with diverse skills and talents to be utilized in the workforce. That’s the message of the Office of Disability Employment Policy’s (ODEP) new campaign for NDEAM, entitled “My Disability is One Part of Who I Am.”
When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990, it aimed to dramatically increase social inclusion, access and opportunity in all facets of life for individuals with disabilities.
Gains have been made in public transportation, telecommunications and physical building accessibility. But in the 25 years since the passage of ADA, employment rates for people with disabilities have seen only marginal improvement.
The most current data, from the 2013 American Community Survey, indicates that for working age (21-64 years of age) noninstitutionalized individuals with disabilities, the employment rate sits at 34.5 percent, less than half the 76.8 percent employment rate for individuals without disabilities in the same age group. For full-time and full-year employment for working age noninstitutionalized individuals with disabilities, that rate drops to 21.5 percent.
Low employment rates, coupled with increased costs of living, have created substantial economic hardships for people with disabilities. The poverty rate in 2013 for working age noninstitutionalized people with disabilities is 28.2 percent, more than twice the poverty rate for people without disabilities in the same age group.
Households that include working age people with disabilities have an annual median income that is $22,600 less than households that do not include working age people with disabilities.
The public and private sectors are currently developing initiatives to address this employment gap. States as Model Employers policies create targeted efforts to improve accessibility and participation in state application and hiring processes, and to identify positions in state agencies where people with disabilities can effectively utilize their skill sets.
Employment First policies support employment rather than disability benefits as the optimal outcome for service delivery, including partnering with private employers in the creation of more competitive and integrated positions where people with disabilities work at or above minimum wage in the same positions alongside individuals without disabilities.
In addition to raising awareness about employment issues for individuals with disabilities, National Disability Employment Awareness Month is an opportunity to learn about the history of disability in the U.S. and to reflect on the contributions of individuals with disabilities in your own organization and the U.S. workforce.
NDEAM was first conceived in 1945 as a weeklong celebration of the employment contributions of individuals with physical disabilities following the influx of World War II veterans returning to the civilian workforce. Since its inception, it has expanded from the first week of October to the full month and now recognizes the workforce contributions of people with all types of disability.
For more information and resources on National Disability Employment Month including My Disability Is One Part of Who I Am posters, go to this website.
Legislators with information requests about disability employment issues can contact NCSL, including questions on policy, implementation and more. And be sure to return to NCSL’s website for upcoming disability employment policy information.
Kyle Ingram is a policy specialist in NCSL’s Environment, Energy, and Transportation program, focusing on disability and employment issues.