I recently went to an event where there were many people I didn’t know. After asking my name, the next question each person I met asked was “Where do you work?”
As adults we are defined and often judged by the work we do. In addition to earning a living, work affords us a certain dignity. This is true for people with disabilities no less than it is for others.
As central as work is to our lives, society has persistently low expectations for the employment of people with disabilities. The national unemployment rate for people with disabilities is 14.2% — nearly twice the rate for those without disabilities. The labor force participation rate for North Carolinians with disabilities is 30%, while it is 70% for those without disabilities.
July 26th marks the 23rd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In enacting the ADA, Congress found that:
Society has tended to isolate and segregate individuals with disabilities.
Individuals with disabilities continually encounter various forms of discrimination, including outright intentional exclusion, the discriminatory effects of architectural, transportation, and communication barriers, overprotective rules and policies, failure to make modifications to existing facilities and practices, exclusionary qualification standards and criteria, segregation, and relegation to lesser services, programs, activities, benefits, jobs, or other opportunities.
With the right accommodations, assistive technologies, and appropriate supports, even those with the most significant disabilities can contribute and enjoy the same benefits of work that most of us take for granted. Yet, 23 years after the passage of the ADA, employment for many people with disabilities remains elusive.
Thousands of North Carolinians with intellectual and developmental disabilities have been funneled into “sheltered workshops” where they make a subminimum wage, often just pennies an hour. Tasks in these facilities are frequently make-work or repetitive, with the purported goal of developing job skills to use in real jobs. Yet many stay put for decades, with no real opportunity to move into integrated employment.
This is a tragedy. And it’s unnecessary. Young people with disabilities should be raised with the expectation that they will work. Students with disabilities must have Individual Education Plans that make integrated work a goal – and our schools must work with them toward that goal. We don’t do our children any favors when we prevent them from reaching to meet ambitious goals because we fear their failure; they have the same right as their peers without disabilities, to succeed – and maybe to fail.
Thousands of North Carolinians who can and want to work are unable to do so because of employer policies that exclude them. Compare two recent cases:
* A valued employee develops narcolepsy, which makes it unsafe for her to drive. The employer denies her request to telecommute, even though she has been doing so successfully for months. She loses the job that has supported her family.
* An employee with a learning disability needs training material in audio format in order to process important information and maintain his licensure. The employer provides access and the employee successfully completes the training and remains on the job.
Congress has already given us the legal answers to the question of accommodations for people with disabilities. But the jobs can only come when there is compliance.
Thousands who rely on Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Medicaid fear losing benefits if they attempt to re-enter the workplace. People with disabilities who try to return to the work force face the immediate loss of health care coverage and the eventual loss of SSDI. This fear can be overwhelming.
Federal law provides a gradual way to reduce reliance on SSDI while the individual assesses whether a long-term return to work is viable. The State must allow workers with disabilities to remain Medicaid-eligible, fully implementing a provision of State law that has been on the books since 2005. Removing this barrier will clear the way for people with disabilities to reclaim independence without fear of being without a safety net.
For every barrier, there is a way around it if we honestly believe in the right of people with disabilities to equal access to the dignity of work. After 23 years, it is clear that securing meaningful, full employment for people with disabilities will take substantial, sustained effort by policymakers, employers, and the disability community. It is equally clear that the cause of human dignity demands no less.
Vicki Smith is the Executive Director of Disability Rights North Carolina.