2020 spawned a pivotal national conversation that focused on the need for businesses – from Main Street to Wall Street – to address recruitment practices, employment policies, attitudes and other aspects of the employment process to explore opportunities for diversity, equity and inclusion to expand. It seems like every business in the US, from Google to Pepsi to the family-owned small business near you, is researching DEI strategies and tactics to attract new employees, retain existing employees, and appeal to a wider customer base.
You cannot sign in to LinkedIn or Indeed without posting a new job posting for an executive dedicated to promoting DEI internally. You can’t scroll through Instagram or Facebook without coming across a new consumer-facing social media campaign like L’Oréal’s new partnership with the NAACP. And you can’t shop at your favorite store without noticing the latest social justice philanthropy initiative like Crate & Barrel’s new 15 percent pledge to ensure 15% of its products and collaborations are from black companies, artists and designers by 2024 be represented.
As our country continues the necessary DEI talks and organizations and businesses continue to employ creative strategies to solve systemic problems, we are overlooking the most underemployed and unemployed segment of our entire US population – people with disabilities.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are 61 million adults with a disability in the United States – that’s 26%, or about one in four adults. In 2019, the Ministry of Labor reported that 7.3% of people with disabilities were unemployed – about twice the rate for people without disabilities.
Where are the consumer-centric campaigns with people with visible (and invisible) disabilities?
Where are the social justice campaigns in support of the products and businesses of people with disabilities?
And above all, why aren’t more companies employing people with disabilities?
Despite the passage of the Disabled Americans Act by Congress in 1990 and subsequent amendments in 2008, systemic issues continue to pose significant structural, economic, educational, and regulatory barriers to employers and people with disabilities.
The poverty rate among adults with disabilities (27%) is more than twice as high as that among adults without disabilities (12%). Some will say the reason for this is complicated. We disagree.
People with disabilities are forced to live in a health and benefit system that was developed in the 1960s when people with disabilities were often institutionalized from birth. Even in 2021, for a person with a disability eligible for entitlement programs, the only health care and services option is in their state Medicaid program (51 different bureaucratic programs that are complex and complex for individuals, family members, and caregivers are awkward).
People with disabilities also have to navigate a complex, limited employment sector based on outdated low expectations and stereotypes – limited options more like the 1980s than the 2020s.
Many people with disabilities live in poverty because their only government support (i.e. Medicaid and Social Security) is not specifically targeted to support their disability. Individuals are limited in what they can earn (around $ 735 per month) and how much they can save at any given time (around $ 2,000). These means tested program qualifications are based on income measures from 1964.
Fifty-seven years later, it is time to look at these legacy systems and programs. It is time to decouple the poor from the disabled community and create incentives to bring people with disabilities into jobs and careers.
Many people with disabilities can and want to work, and many can work effectively with minimal assistance. In many cases, applying for government support to help people on low incomes and live in poverty is the only way people with disabilities can survive because they lack the experience, opportunities, encouragement and support that are needed to to get them into sustainable employment.
Any organization, including the government, can help improve this situation and help the largest unemployed population of people living in the United States today:
- Create a co-designed national disability insurance program that focuses on self-management by the individual and his or her family or carer.
- Remove income and wealth restrictions for people with disabilities so they can work, live and fulfill their own professional passions without fear of losing benefits.
- Employers can make their workplaces truly diverse, equitable and inclusive by changing their recruiting strategies, expanding their talent pool, offering a training program that partners with special education programs and local disability organizations, and their goods and services – and the way they market – make sure – appeal to a wider audience.
As we near 2021 and begin the economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, it makes sense to think about ways to maximize labor force participation. A strong focus on DEI is critical to positioning the economy for recovery and growth. And while we discuss how DEI should be successful in the US, it is time for policymakers and employers to do their part to tap into the most unemployed population in this country – people with disabilities.
Sara Hart Weir is a leading nonprofit executive and disability policy expert in the United States. Weir is the former President and CEO of the National Down Syndrome Society, co-founder of the CEO Commission for Disability Employment, and most recently the runner-up in the U.S. Third Congressional District of Kansas in 2020.
Nicholas Wyman is a future labor expert, author, speaker, and president of the Institute for Skills and Innovation in the Workplace. He was also LinkedIn’s Leading Education Author of the Year and wrote an award-winning book, Job U, A Practical Guide to Finding Wealth and Success by Developing the Skills Businesses Really Need. Wyman holds an MBA, graduated from Harvard Business School and the Kennedy School of Government, and received a Churchill Fellowship.