Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, and the Senate author of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, released a report detailing the current state of employment for adults with disabilities, and describing policy recommendations that would help to increase labor force participation. Following a series of bipartisan HELP Committee hearings to explore the persistently low employment rate of people with disabilities, this report outlines the next steps to achieve Chairman Harkin’s goal of raising the number of Americans with disabilities in the labor force to six million by 2015. Harkin’s report comes a day after Delaware Governor Jack Markell announced that he will make expanding employment for Americans with disabilities the defining initiative of his new National Governors Association chairmanship.
“As someone who has sought to expand rights and opportunities for children and adults with disabilities for almost four decades, I am convinced America is ready to address this next great barrier of disability employment,” Harkin wrote in the report. “At this time we are seeing a convergence of strong bipartisan leadership from the public and private sectors with the coming of age of a new generation of young adults with disabilities who have high expectations for themselves and have the education and skills to succeed in the modern workplace. If we make this issue the priority that it deserves to be, in the next few years we will see a real change in employment outcomes for Americans with disabilities.
“…My hope is for this report to support and encourage bipartisan leadership in the public and private sectors that will have a measurable positive impact on employment of Americans with disabilities in 2012 and beyond… Our country showed bold bipartisan leadership in 1990 when it passed the ADA and America is a better place because of its implementation. It is now time again to show the same kind of leadership and open wide the doors to better jobs and careers as well as create an accessible pathway out of deep poverty and into the mainstream of the American middle class for the more than 20 million working age American adults with disabilities.”
As the first generation of Americans who have grown up under the ADA approach adulthood and wounded warriors return from Iraq and Afghanistan, our country has a unique opportunity to address the issue of disability employment. In recent years, public- and private-sector employers have gotten more serious about growing the disability workforce, prompting both President Obama and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to set specific goals for welcoming people with disabilities into the labor force. Companies like Walgreens, Lowe’s, and Best Buy have led the way in the private sector. As the economic recovery moves forward, Chairman Harkin will continue to work to ensure that Americans with disabilities are not left out of opportunities to earn a living and join the middle class.
Through several hearings and extensive staff research, the Committee found that:
■There is no evidence that employment outcomes for people with disabilities as a whole have improved since 1990, and participation rates have been persistently lower than for people without disabilities. In June 2012, just 32.1 percent of working age people with disabilities were participating in the labor force, compared with 77.7 percent of those without disabilities.
■Between July 2008 and December 2010, workers with disabilities left the labor force at a rate five times greater than workers without a disability: 2.1 percent of the non-disability workforce, versus 10.4 percent of the disability workforce, left the labor force over that period.
■The median earnings for workers with disabilities is less than two thirds the median wages for workers without disabilities: in 2010, $19,500 for workers with disabilities versus $29,997 for workers without disabilities.
■Individuals with disabilities also experience a disproportionate level of poverty because of their low employment participation and earnings rates, their underemployment and the low levels of federal disability cash benefits. In 2010, the poverty rate for working age adults with disabilities in the U.S. was 27.3 percent. The poverty rate for working age adults without disabilities was 12.8 percent.
According to the the “Open Letter from the Chairman,” this report represents the dismal disability employment situation, points to recent developments that create an historic opportunity to bring more workers with disabilities into the labor force, and calls on the leadership in Congress and the Administration, in the business community, and in society at large to elevate this issue to a national priority.
With the goal of significantly increasing employment of people with disabilities in mind, the Chairman plans to introduce bipartisan legislation that will:
•help young people with disabilities transition successfully from school to higher education and competitive, integrated employment that can lead to quality careers and economic security;
•help disability-owned businesses compete effectively for contracts within all levels of government and the private sector;
•create incentives for States to develop and test new models of providing income support rewarding work and offering long-term services and supports that will better enable people with disabilities to live in the community, work and earn to their full potential, and remain employed after the onset of a disability; and
•encourage saving and asset development for people with disabilities so that they can become more economically secure and join the middle class.