BETHESDA, Md. — It’s the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The good news is that people who use wheelchairs can now use ramps to get into public buildings.
But the bad news is that for most people with disabilities, the on-ramps to success are still blocked. Only 3 out of 10 of Maine’s 200,000 working-age people with disabilities are employed.
Fully 1 in 5 Americans have a disability, and I am one of those people. I also know what it means to raise a child with multiple disabilities.
Moreover, before the ADA made buildings accessible, I was temporarily a wheelchair user because of a car accident.
Often, I could not get into buildings because of physical barriers. But people also frequently spoke to me very loudly and slowly – as if I had a hearing impairment or an intellectual disability as well.
Academic studies have confirmed that overall, people think that people with disabilities are not competent. One outcome of those stigmas is that many employers deny people with disabilities the chance to work.
A recent Kessler Foundation survey shows that most working-age people with disabilities are striving for employment. While persistent stigmas remain an obstacle, evidence shows that people with disabilities can be highly successful workers.
For example, Virgin Airways founder Sir Richard Branson and finance wizard Charles Schwab are dyslexic. Scientist Stephen Hawking and Greg Abbott, governor of Texas, are both wheelchair users. So was President Franklin D. Roosevelt before them.
Today in Maine, many people with disabilities between the ages of 16 and 20 are preparing to enter the labor market. They have high expectations and deserve the same opportunities to achieve the American Dream as anyone else. Young people with disabilities may simply need some thoughtful help to transition into the workforce.
People who are blind, deaf or nonverbal frequently use assistive technology. Similarly, people with intellectual disabilities can benefit greatly from internship opportunities and job coaches. Comcast, Ernst & Young LLC, Lockheed Martin, Procter & Gamble, Sprint and other companies have seen that people with disabilities can be extremely capable and loyal workers.
While there are few Stephen Hawkings – with or without disabilities – people with disabilities can work in hospitality, tend our parks, assist aging seniors and be super talents in developing computer software.
The U.S. Business Leadership Network, a network of companies that focus on building their bottom line through diverse talent, can be a real resource to the private sector.
The Maine State Chamber of Commerce, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and the Maine Department of Labor are all involved, and more information on them can be found at mainebln.org. If you have a disability or a loved one with a disability, www. employmentforme.org offers you help finding support.
Vocational rehabilitation programs in Maine helped 900 people with disabilities find work in 2012. However, under the new federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act, Maine’s governor, Paul LePage, can continue to break down the silos between the branches of government so that education, transportation, workforce development, health care and other agencies collaborate with employers to create strategies enabling people with barriers to obtain jobs and careers.
The Employment First Maine initiative is a great step forward toward creating equal opportunities for all people in Maine. This law provides an integrated and community-based employment, customized employment and first and preferred service or support option for people with disabilities.
The statute also promotes coordination and collaboration among state agencies and reviews all state plans to determine whether they effectively meet the employment needs of persons with disabilities – a great step toward creating equal opportunities for all residents of Maine.
It is vital for Maine to expand programs that are proven to succeed. Public-private-philanthropic partnerships, along with programs such as Project SEARCH and Bridges to Work, can bring breakthroughs and success.
As a person with a disability myself, I know the dignity, friendships, income and purpose that jobs provide. “Employment First” policies are a good starting point, but further progress is needed. When people with disabilities can climb the career ladder, it is a win-win-win for people with disabilities, employers and taxpayers alike.