Twenty-two years ago, my first son Jacob was born with hydrocephalus, or water on the brain. Because of that and a series of medical complications early in Jacob’s life, he is both physically and intellectually disabled, and like most parents, I have been his advocate since his birth. For me this included, at a certain point in my career, making the decision to redirect my efforts from civil rights to disability rights, which meant living disability 24/7. It was not an easy decision, but it was the best one I could have made. It has meant working with wonderful colleagues to help turn the wheel of progress for people like Jacob, so they have the lifetime opportunities they deserve and have every ability to fulfill.
To be fair, this wheel was already turning before I joined in the push. In 1973, just over four decades ago, Congress passed the Rehab Act, which prevented discrimination in hiring by any business accepting federal dollars. It established for the first time, the principle that the exclusion and segregation of people with disabilities was discrimination, caused by prejudice and NOT the inevitable consequence of the physical limitations imposed by a disability.
Its message was that disability is a normal part of the human condition, something that any of us could experience at any time. And that all people, including those with disabilities deserved the right and the opportunity to participate in the workforce.
The Rehab Act marked a new way of thinking about disability—as a civil rights issue and not a medical one.
That same year, journalist Geraldo Rivera exposed the atrocities at Willowbrook State School for children with intellectual disabilities, which, like hundreds of institutions in that day, was the only place people with intellectual and mental health disabilities could live. By the time Rivera did his report, lack of dollars and an “out of sight out of mind” mentality had crept in, rendering such institutions no better than the prisons of the 1800’s: places where residents were chained to their beds without adequate food, clothing, education or activities to fill their days.
In 1975, children with disabilities gained the right to a free and appropriate special education through two federal laws—the Education for All Handicapped Children Act and its successor, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Until that time, virtually no child with disabilities was educated in the public schools—they would be educated at home for those who could afford it, in expensive private schools, or not at all.
By 2010, the gap in high school graduation rates between students with and without disabilities had narrowed to virtually zero, from the high double digits in previous decades. IDEA, and the individualized care it established for special education students, has paved the way for children with disabilities to attend college. The recent passage of the ABLE Act allows families to build savings that can not only the costs associated with disability , but even more important, to achieve economic mobility, without losing eligibility for certain government benefits.
Now, through a combination of legislation, the demographics of an aging population and labor force, and huge changes in societal views and attitudes, the prospects for young people with disabilities, have never been better.
But our work is not yet done. The latest Harris Survey commissioned by the National Organization for Disability showed that only 20% of working aged Americans with disabilities is working. It’s a number that’s virtually unchanged since Harris started polling for NOD nearly thirty years ago.
Chronic unemployment has not been limited to the entry-level labor force. Even among college graduates with disabilities, only 40% are working, compared with more than 70% of all college graduates who are working full time.
And of the two in five who are working:
With the odds at only two in five that the 2 million college students with disabilities will get a job, that means that’s 1,200,000 will not. That’s not only a terrible injustice; it’s a terrible waste of talent that could be enriching the American workforce. But I have hope that more changes are around the corner.
In the next year we’ll celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA extended broad protections for people with disabilities, and was as sweeping in its time as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, on which it was modeled.
But perhaps even more significant than the ADA for its potential to dramatically change the employment prospects for Americans with disabilities is a regulation promulgated by the Department of Labor just last year, affecting implementation of Section 503 of the Rehab Act.
The so-called 503 Rule Change requires all federal contractors—a group that employs nearly 25% of the nation’s workforce—to set a goal that 7% of their workforce be comprised of employees with disabilities. If these goals are met, that could mean 600,000 jobs for people with disabilities in the first year alone. The rule affects all job categories, including senior management.
The rule change implicitly understands that the tenacity and problem-solving skills that people with disabilities attain in navigating a world that wasn’t built for them are assets that can be trained towards productivity in the workforce. Companies that employ know how to attractand serve people with disabilities—both as employees and as customers—find numerous benefits. (In fact, opportunity to invest in such companies and share in those benefits financially may be on the rise.) When we stop seeing people through the blinders of what they cannot do, and understand that people with disabilities are regular people with the full spectrum of talents and abilities, everybody wins.
My ultimate decision to enter the disability field came after seeing Rivera’s film again, and recognizing that, had my son Jacob been born just a couple of decades prior, he would have lived at Willowbrook. I joined the fight that many parents before me waged, to ensure Jacob the rights to live with his own family in his own home and community, to attend school, and to engage in meaningful activities as an adult. But this fight was never just for Jacob. It was for all of us, to progress toward the day when we all see and benefit from the value of all of our citizens.
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