Quantcast

Little progress on jobs for disabled

Published: Wednesday, July 1 2015 9:36 a.m. MDT

Jennifer Lortie works on an iPad in her Willimantic, Conn., office. Of the 29 million working-age Americans with a disability, Lortie is one of the 5.1 million who are actually employed. (Associated Press) Jennifer Lortie works on an iPad in her Willimantic, Conn., office. Of the 29 million working-age Americans with a disability, Lortie is one of the 5.1 million who are actually employed. (Associated Press)

WASHINGTON — Whether it means opening school track meets to a deaf child or developing a new lunch menu with safe alternatives for students with food allergies, recent Obama administration decisions could significantly affect Americans with disabilities. But there's been little progress in one of the most stubborn challenges: employing the disabled.

According to government labor data, of the 29 million working-age Americans with a disability — those who are 16 years and older — 5.2 million are employed. That's 18 percent of the disabled population and is down from 20 percent four years ago. The employment rate for people without a disability was 63 percent in February.

The job numbers for the disabled haven't budged much since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which gave millions of disabled people civil rights protections and guaranteed equal opportunity in employment, public accommodations, transportation, government services and more.

In this photo taken Friday, March 1, 2013, Jennifer Lortie begin her two-hour commute home after work, waiting for a bus in Willimantic, Conn. Of the 29 million working?age Americans with a disability Lortie, who has limited arm and leg use due to cerebral palsy, is one of the 5.1 million disabled Americans who are actually employed. The National Council on Disability's Jeff Rosen says long-standing prejudicial attitudes need to be addressed to boost jobs. (Associated Press) In this photo taken Friday, March 1, 2013, Jennifer Lortie begin her two-hour commute home after work, waiting for a bus in Willimantic, Conn. Of the 29 million working?age Americans with a disability Lortie, who has limited arm and leg use due to cerebral palsy, is one of the 5.1 million disabled Americans who are actually employed. The National Council on Disability's Jeff Rosen says long-standing prejudicial attitudes need to be addressed to boost jobs. (Associated Press)

The National Council on Disability's Jeff Rosen said long-standing prejudicial attitudes need to be addressed to boost jobs.

"Employers are still catching on to the fact that the needs of most workers with disabilities aren't special, but employees with disabilities often bring specialized skills to the workplace," Rosen said. "Perhaps no one knows how to adapt, think critically or find solutions better than someone who has to do so daily in order to navigate a world that wasn't built with them in mind."

Rosen, who is deaf, was named in January as chairman of the council, an independent federal agency that advises the president, Congress and other federal agencies on disability policy.

The Obama administration recently has acted to expand the rights of Americans with disabilities in other areas.

The Education Department's civil rights division released new guidelines that direct schools to provide students with disabilities equal access to extracurricular sports teams. If schools can't, they should create similar athletic programs for disabled children, the department said.

In this photo taken Friday, March 1, 2013, Jennifer Lortie works in her Willimantic, Conn., office. Of the 29 million working?age Americans with a disability Lortie, who has limited arm and leg use due to cerebral palsy, is one of the 5.1 million, who are actually employed. The National Council on Disability's Jeff Rosen says long-standing prejudicial attitudes need to be addressed to boost jobs.  (Associated Press) In this photo taken Friday, March 1, 2013, Jennifer Lortie works in her Willimantic, Conn., office. Of the 29 million working?age Americans with a disability Lortie, who has limited arm and leg use due to cerebral palsy, is one of the 5.1 million, who are actually employed. The National Council on Disability's Jeff Rosen says long-standing prejudicial attitudes need to be addressed to boost jobs. (Associated Press)

Also, the Justice Department said in a settlement with a Massachusetts college, Lesley University, that severe food allergies can be considered a disability under the law. That potentially could lead to new menus and accommodations at schools, restaurants and other places to address the needs of people with food allergies.

One silver lining in the lagging employment for the disabled has been federal hiring.

The latest data from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management shows nearly 15 percent of new federal hires between 2010 and 2011 were people with disabilities — almost 19,000 people. That's up from the previous year when about 10 percent of new hires were people with disabilities.

President Barack Obama signed an executive order in 2010 aimed at improving the federal ranks of people with disabilities. The goal was to add 100,000 disabled people to federal payrolls in five years; that would be within reach if the 2010-2011 hiring numbers were to stick or improve.

In this photo taken Friday, March 1, 2013, Jennifer Lortie maneuvers herself into a bus during her two-hour commute home after work in Willimantic, Conn. Of the 29 million working?age Americans with a disability Lortie, who has limited arm and leg use due to cerebral palsy, is one of the 5.1 million disabled Americans who are actually employed. The National Council on Disability's Jeff Rosen says long-standing prejudicial attitudes need to be addressed to boost jobs.  (Associated Press) In this photo taken Friday, March 1, 2013, Jennifer Lortie maneuvers herself into a bus during her two-hour commute home after work in Willimantic, Conn. Of the 29 million working?age Americans with a disability Lortie, who has limited arm and leg use due to cerebral palsy, is one of the 5.1 million disabled Americans who are actually employed. The National Council on Disability's Jeff Rosen says long-standing prejudicial attitudes need to be addressed to boost jobs. (Associated Press)

Federal agencies are trying to achieve the numbers through better recruitment, especially at colleges and universities. And last month, OPM issued rules to limit the paperwork that potential hires with disabilities would need to provide. They essentially "self identify" as disabled by qualifying for a special hiring category known as "Schedule A" that allows disabled people to apply for a job through a noncompetitive hiring process, meaning they could be hired without competing with the general public.

The administration also is considering new rules that would leverage the power of federal spending to encourage companies to hire more disabled workers. The Labor Department is weighing a rule that would require companies with federal contracts to set a goal of having at least 7 percent of their workforce be disabled. Federal contractors employ nearly one-quarter of the nation's workforce.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company