As stagnant employment rates continue to nag the U.S. economy, one of the worst-affected groups--adults with autism and other developmental disabilities – has gained two valuable allies at the federal and state levels.
In Washington, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has released a report urging that employment of people with disabilities be elevated to a national priority. Days earlier, the new chair of the National Governors Association (NGA), Delaware Governor Jack Markell, announced he would make increased employment for people with disabilities his chief initiative during his tenure.
The timing could not have come sooner. According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data for June, just 32.1 percent of Americans with disabilities are part of the nation’s workforce, well below half the rate for the general population. For adults with autism, Autism Speaks has found that 9 out of 10 either are unemployed or underemployed, regardless of their IQ or education level.
In a Huffington Post blog, Harkin noted that when the 22nd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act is marked later this month, many of its supporters will recognize that the employment situation for disabled citizens has improved little.
“In recent years, that situation has gotten worse,” he wrote. “According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the disability workforce shrank by over 10 percent during the recession, five times faster than the non-disability workforce, which shrank by only about two percent.”
Senator Harkin is recommending that the definition of disability in the Social Security Act, which dates from 1956, be updated to reflect the ADA’s goals of equal opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency. The U.S. Department of Labor has proposed a 7 percent hiring goal on federal contracts for people with disabilities, he said, while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has called on private employers to increase the disability labor force by over 1 million workers by 2015.
At the recent NGA conference in Williamsburg, Va, Governor Markell unveiled his chair’s initiative, A Better Bottom Line: Employing People with Disabilities, announcing that he plans to convene governors, businesses, disability leaders and other thought leaders throughout the year to share ideas and move forward with support for Americans with disabilities.
“The bottom line is that there are so many people with disabilities who have the time, talent and desire to make meaningful contributions to interested employers,” Markell said. “More companies are recognizing that creating greater economic opportunity for these workers improves their own bottom line as well. It doesn’t matter whether you were born with additional challenges to face or – in the case of our wounded veterans for example – acquired them later in life. What matters is what you have to offer.”
Success will require appropriate training, job placement and work-based support, as well as advancing best practices and engaging the business community, Markell said. A major emphasis of the NGA initiative will be on people with significant intellectual and developmental disabilities who may require supports such as job coaches or personal attendants in order to live and work in the community.
Autism Speaks projects that 500,000 children with autism will become adults over the next decade. According to a study published in Pediatrics by Autism Speaks Family Services Committee member Paul Shattuck, Ph.D., only 55.1 percent of young adults with autism held paying jobs during their first six years out of high school, the lowest percentage among the disability categories he examined. Even more concerning was the fact that youths with an ASD had the lowest rates of participation in employment and the highest rates of non-participation across all disability categories.
Autism Speaks is currently involved in three major initiatives concerning the employment of adults with autism:
• An Employment Think Tank was held in June in collaboration with TIAA-CREF to explore strategies to increase job opportunities for adults with autism in the job market and to foster closer ties with business leaders; an Executive Summary Report and video will be posted soon on our website
• A comprehensive Employment Tool Kit is in development to help adults with autism find and keep a job in the current competitive labor market, as well as help employers recognize the abilities and strengths of individuals with autism
• As part of Advancing Futures for Adults with Autism, we are helping to empower adults with autism to thrive in their employment, housing and community life.
Senator Harkin found reason for optimism with the current generation of disabled youths entering adulthood.
“Unlike many in earlier generations, they grew up in integrated classrooms and accessible communities, expect to work in mainstream jobs and are unwilling to accept living in poverty with meager supports from the government,” he wrote in the blog. “Add to this group the wounded warriors returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with a powerful desire to work and support their families, and you can see that we have a critical mass of disabled youth and young adults who are well positioned to drive change in the workplace.”
Autism Speaks applauds the strong, overdue focus that is starting to be directed to employment issues of adults with autism. We look forward to working closely with these policy makers and other supporters to help people with autism reach their potential by having meaningful jobs that enrich their lives.