Senate report: Make disability employment a “national priority”

Following a series of recent hearings, a key Senate committee released a new reportJuly 16 calling for a new movement to improve on the greatest failure of the Americans with Disabilities Act – the failure to improve employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

Man in chair with business card & briefcase
Report follows Senate hearings on disability employment

“During my lifetime, I have seen the workforce open up for women, older workers, minorities and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans,” wrote Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pension, in the Huffington Post. “I believe our country’s ability to tap into the talent of its diverse population has spurred innovation and made us a global leader in so many areas.

“It is time to take the next step, to open wide the doors to the workplace for our citizens with disabilities. In doing so, we will increase our workforce diversity; tap into a valuable, talented, underutilized population, and marshal all of our available resources to maintain America’s leadership in the global economy.”

Writing in the report’s introduction, Harkin explained a number of factors contributing to his belief that disability employment could surge in the upcoming years.

He cited renewed focus on the issue by private businesses and the Chamber of Commerce’s decision to join President Obama’s goal of increasing the number of people with disabilities in the workforce by one million by 2015. He also cited a number of governmental actions, such as Obama’s 2010 executive order calling for an increase of 100,000 in the number of federal employees with disabilities and recent proposed guidelines for disability hiring by federal contractors.

He also emphasized the coming of age of a new generation of young people with disabilities – of which he called the “ADA generation” – that has had better educational opportunities and access to the world around them than their parents and grandparents.

“This generation knows that being employed is part of being an adult, being responsible, and being a contributing participant to the American way of life,” Harkin wrote in the report.

The report documents the most recent trends in disability hiring – which fell off a the rate five times faster during the recession than for the rest of the workforce – and initiative by states and businesses to reverse this trend. The report also criticizes the misplaced incentives of many federal programs, many which were created at a time when most people with disabilities had no opportunity to live independently or participate in integrated employment.

“Although incremental changes to income support policies have been takin in the past 20 years to better align with the goals of the ADA, federal spending overall continues to prioritize ‘ taking care of’ people with disabilities outside of the labor force, instead of modernizing the programs to provide investments and supports that are designed to facilitate labor force participation, increased earning capacity and economic security of these workers,” the report states.