Employing people with disabilities: are we there yet?

“Are we there yet?” This is a question that’s been asked in vehicles since the dawn of family road trips. The phrase likely stirs unpleasant memories of the family car jammed with luggage and passengers, who are tired, restless, and impatient by the length of the journey. But the question is also hopeful. Asking it means we are headed somewhere, that we have identified a destination and we are moving toward it (albeit slower than we’d like).

For far too long, our country has been stuck in a long, destination-less car ride when it comes to increasing employment for individuals with disabilities. Americans with disabilities lag far behind their peers in employment. Only two in ten people with disabilities participate in the workforce compared to seven in ten for people without disabilities. Despite efforts to help increase employment for people with disabilities, including the passage of the historic Rehabilitation Act of 1973, jobseekers with disabilities continue to face double digit unemployment.

Some have argued that our stagnant progress to increase employment for people with disabilities is because our country has not established a clear goal, a destination, if you will, in this journey. As the saying goes, “you can’t get lost if you don’t know where you’re going.” We have focused a lot on the journey, we’ve even added helpful mile markers (initiatives and resources) along the way, but we have not always set specific destinations.

Just recently, however, the Department of Labor has released rules related to Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act that could be a real game-changer when it comes to helping to increase hiring individuals with disabilities. New rules will require federal contractors and subcontractors to set a goal of having seven percent of their workforce be made up of qualified people with disabilities.

The focus on federal contractor hiring of people with disabilities is not new. Since the passage of the Rehabilitation Act 40 years ago, businesses and organizations who do work with the federal government have had to affirmatively recruit and hire people with disabilities. What’s new is that our shared objective is now backed by a goal – a clear destination that contractors can measure against to determine progress and effectiveness of their disability employment strategies and outreach measures.

With this in place, we will know where we are going, at least related to federal contractors, who employ 20 percent of the nation’s total workforce according to some estimates. This rule comes on top of an earlier executive order setting a clear goal for the hiring of individuals with disabilities in the federal government.

Easter Seals is proud of our programs promoting employment of people with disabilities, veterans and older adults. Read the letter we sent to the Obama administration applauding this move and you’ll see how much we are welcoming the new disability employment and related veterans employment rules. Our nationwide network of community-based affiliates stands ready to help connect federal contractors with job openings to qualified individuals with disabilities seeking employment. Together, we can help move the needle on workforce participation among individuals with disabilities and be in a position to answer the “are we there yet?” question, now that we have locked in our destination goal. Happy travels!


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