This year's celebration of National Disability Employment Awareness Month is marked by new progress at the state and federal levels to increase job opportunities tempered by sobering reminders of the disproportionately high unemployment that persists within the disabilities community.
Autism Speaks is raising awareness of the issue through a series of nationwide Small Business Town Halls, including events Oct. 21 in Dallas and Oct. 23 outside Chicago.
In March, the U.S. Census Bureau released data showing that between 2008 and 2010, individuals without disabilities were about three times more likely to be employed than Americans with disabilities. More than half of workers with disabilities earned under $25,000, compared with just 38 percent of their peers, translating into a 75 percent earnings gap. Just 46 percent of workers with a disability worked full time, compared to 62 percent of those without disabilities.
To help reverse those trends, Vice President Joe Biden announced a new 7 percent set-aside goal on federal contracts established by the U.S. Department of Labor for workers with disabilities. While similar to hiring set-asides created for minorities and women, the new policy for people with disabilities is not enforceable; rather, it requires contractors to recruit and track their progress in hiring disabled workers when they bid on federal contracts.
The action was significant because 1 out of every 5 Americans workers is employed through a federally funded contract.
In Congress, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), the author of the landmark 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), unveiled a four-point plan to create 250,000 new job opportunities for young adults with disabilities aged 16 to 19 by 2015. A key element in Harkin's plan is to eliminate disincentives in the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) programs that prevent young adults from taking paid employment.
Earlier in the year, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) introduced the AGE-IN Act, (S-1259), legislation that would fund research into the aging-out phenomenon and inventory the existing infrastructure for community-based housing, continuing education and vocational training, accessible transportation and community integration services. A half-million children with autism are expected to "age-out" of educational and other support services as they turn 21 over the next 10 years.
At the state level, Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, used his one-year chairmanship of the National Governors Association, to develop a five-point plan for governors to increase disability employment opportunities. The report recommended hiring by state government, support for business thathire workers with disabilities and incorporating disability issues in state workforce development strategies.