Today, one-third of Americans with disabilities are employed in the labor force. And though that number is not where we’d like it to be, with many still either unemployed or underemployed, it is important to take stock of how far we’ve come as a nation in protecting the civil rights of people with disabilities, giving them more opportunities to participate in the workplace.
As we celebrate National Disability Employment Awareness month, let’s look back on the journey over the last three decades and appreciate the progress we’ve made as a society and as a business community.
A Look Back
In July 1990, President George Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law. Modeled after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the ADA is the most comprehensive disability rights legislation in history. It paved the way for people with disabilities to get better access to public services and enjoy greater social and employment opportunities while increasing awareness that those with disabilities are willing and able to participate in the modern world.
Two years later, amendments to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 were made to mandate presumptive employability. Around this time, many leading businesses began to recognize disability as a crucial part of diversity, and actively incorporated it into their workplace inclusion programs. This gave way to the US Business Leadership Network, an organization formed to help businesses drive performance by leveraging disability inclusion in the workplace.
The nineties continued to see several notable advancements, including the 1996 Small Business Job Protection Act that provides a federal tax credit to companies that hire workers with disabilities, the new Presidential Task Force on Employment of Adults with Disabilities, and the landmark Olmstead v. L.C. decision, declaring segregation of people with disabilities a form of segregation when integrated community-based settings are an option. In 1999, the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) was established as a permanent entity within the US Department of Labor to focus on disability within the context of federal labor policy.
To commemorate the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, in 2000, President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 13163, requiring agencies and departments to recruit more people with disabilities and strengthen efforts to provide reasonable accommodations. In 2009, the Federal Recovery and Reinvestment Act significantly increased funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and provided millions of vocational rehabilitation services, including job placement, training, and education. And in 2010, President Barak Obama signed Executive Order 13548, requiring executive departments and agencies to increase recruitment, hiring, and retention of people with disabilities.
Over the last ten years, we’ve seen an uptick in legislation and awareness initiatives. In 2014, the WIOA (Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act) was passed to help job seekers access the services they need to succeed in employment and match employers with skilled workers. A year later, the Advisory Committee on Increasing Competitive Integrated Employment for Individuals with Disabilities was established to study and prepare findings, conclusions, and recommendations to Congress and the Secretary of Labor on ways to increase employment opportunities for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities.
Earlier this year, the Valuable 500, the largest network of global CEOs committed to disability inclusion, launched the Generation Valuable, aimed at connecting and integrating C-Suite talent with disability talent. The goal of the initiative is to foster new perspectives, raise awareness, cultivate growth, and address the systemic barriers to promotion people with disabilities face once they hit the middle management level.
Employers Play a Critical Role
With increased awareness that people with disabilities can and should be included in the workforce, we are seeing perceptions begin to change and actions being taken. But more needs to be done. Employers have a tremendous opportunity to support this goal by supplementing their workforce with the largely untapped resource of talented and gifted individuals who are more than able and willing to support, outperform, and even lead their peers.