Monday, January 25, 2010

Employment First: Full Throttle Ahead!

To my readers,

I work for an organization that specializes in customizing job placement, training, housing, and employment in support of people with significant disabilities and other life challenges. Also, I am actively involved in promoting organizational systems changes to improve policies and practices that will lead to integrated employment, education, and community living opportunities for all.

In 2005, I created a blog called A New Vision with a goal to promote awareness, public education, and discussion about the importance of productive employment and community integration in the lives of people with disabilities. After a five year run and 125 posts later, I decided to develop this blog to refresh the focus from one of vision to the importance of coordinated goals and action.

Most Americans don’t realize that people with disabilities are the single largest minority population in the United States. The United States Bureau of Census and Statistics reports that 54 million people are living with some level of disability in our country. Even more amazing, the United Nations estimates there is are a half-billion people with disabilities throughout the world!

The personal, social, and economic impacts of living with a disability are simply staggering. Many research studies have closely examined quality of life factors for people with disabilities in comparison to their American peers. Virtually all studies validate the existence of wide gaps in almost every important quality of life measure. For example, people with significant disabilities are far more likely to be living in poverty. They are much more likely to be unemployed, underemployed, or homeless. And people with significant disabilities are more likely to have difficulties accessing a quality education, affordable housing, adequate health care, child care, recreation and leisure, and public transportation.

As a general rule, disability is a key factor in poverty and dependency on others. In other parts of the world, children and adults with disabilities do not enjoy the same quality of life benefits as their peers. Here in the United States, most people with significant disabilities are financially dependent on some form of government assistance or welfare for a majority of their lives.

To illustrate this point, the federal Department of Labor revealed that only 21.6% of Americans with disabilities were participating in the workforce in contrast to 70.0% of all working age Americans in December of 2009. Other studies document the connection between disability and poverty. For example, a Louis Harris/National Organization on Disability Poll revealed 34% of adults with disabilities live in households earning less than $15,000 as compared to 12% of people without disabilities. This wide gap in the employment participation of Americans with and without disabilities is significant and unacceptable to most fair-minded people. And what a waste of human potential!

As a society of diverse people, Americans need to accelerate the idea that employment, social, and economic change is possible. The inclusion of all Americans into every aspect of community living such as education, employment, housing, leisure and recreation, and civic participation is within the reach of everyone when communities are designed with universal principles and offer the right measure of support. This, of course, includes the workforce.

We can longer ignore that policies and practices of the past have been ineffective in producing opportunities and quality of life outcomes all Americans deserve. That said, the scope and dimensions of implementing universal design will demand time and colloborative action to improve public policies and embrace practices known to produce better employment and economic outcomes.

Social and economic change is possible if we are willing to move ahead with bold goals and act on a shared vision. Simply said, we need to establish a culture of expectations where employment is the first choice of all adults who live with disabilities as it is for all working age adults who need a job. The time for talk and good intentions has past. As we enter a new decade, we must choose to act to make employment a reality for all.

Employment First—Full Throttle Ahead!

Don Lavin

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