10:24 AM Feb 25, 2011
This past year we celebrated the 20th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This landmark piece of civil rights legislation made it illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities. Still, many of the goals set up in the original legislation have yet to be realized and it remains a sad reality that Americans with disabilities face specific social and economic challenges in this country. This is especially true when discussing the related factors of disability and poverty.
According to a September 2009 report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, “Nearly two-thirds of working-age adults who experience consistent income poverty—more than 36 months of income poverty during a 48-month period—have one or more disabilities. People with disabilities are much more likely to experience various forms of material hardship—including food insecurity, not getting needed medical or dental care, and not being able to pay rent, mortgage, and utility bills—than people without disabilities, even after controlling for income and other characteristics.” The income poverty rate for persons with disabilities is between two and three times the rate for persons without disabilities. The rate might be even higher since many poverty measures do not take into account the added costs of having a disability.
As part of Jewish Disability Awareness Month this February, the JCPA co-sponsored a Hill briefing with our partners at the RAC and the Jewish Federation of North America, where the issue of employment among the disabled was discussed. It is believed that the systemic barriers to employment that many people with disabilities face are a leading contributor to the high rate of poverty among this population. In January 2010, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the percentage of people with disabilities in the labor force was 21.8% compared to 70.1% for people with no disabilities.
A good, stable job means decent pay for people with disabilities, which can assist in alleviating many of the economic hardships this population faces in terms of healthcare, housing, and hunger. The Arc, an organization that promotes and protects the human rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, has found that there are a number of systemic factors that contribute to the disparity in employment among the disabled:
- Transition- Students with disabilities are frequently not prepared to enter the workforce upon graduation. Youth with disabilities often need extra supports throughout their transition period from school to employment and community living. Students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) are required by law to have transition plans beginning at age 16. However many needed transition services, such as school-based preparatory experiences, career preparation and work-based learning experiences are never provided. This is an issue that can be addressed in the upcoming reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and future reauthorizations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
- Training and Supports- State Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) programs can provide a wide variety of services and supports that an individual with a disability may require to find and maintain employment, including job search and placement assistance, vocational training, assistive technology, and supported employment services. Like many services currently suffering in this budget crisis, state VR programs are underfunded and therefore cannot meet the employment needs of the hundreds of thousands of individuals with disabilities who could benefit from these services.
Many individuals with disabilities could also greatly benefit from the employment and training serviced delivered through the Workforce Investment Act (WIA). Physical and programmatic access to WIA services is woefully lacking for individuals with disabilities, despite federal requirements that such services be accessible. This is a problem that can be fixed when WIA is hopefully reauthorized later this year. That said, WIA is facing a major budget battle in the coming weeks. The House-passed continuing resolution plans to severely cut WIA funding, leading to the shutdown of 3,000 One Stop shops, which serves as the main mechanism for carrying out job training, searches, and other programs. The WIA funding must be protected now in order to make improvements that could benefit more people with disabilities later.
- Segregated Employment- In 2007, only 26% of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities who were in paid or unpaid employment were working in integrated employment settings. The rest were supported in sheltered employment, day habilitation services, or non-work community integration programs.
- Wages-The Fair Labor Standards Act allows employers to pay less than the minimum wage to people with disabilities if they follow detailed procedures. According to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study, nearly 424,000 individuals are earning subminimum wages and 74% of these workers are people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. GAO also notes that 50% of workers earn $2.50 an hour or less and many work part time. Payment of the subminimum wage is controversial in the disability community and ending the practice would entail multiple and comprehensive policy reforms and service delivery expansions.
- Work Disincentives- Many people with disabilities believe they cannot work or they will lose their health benefits. Although work incentives are available under the Social Security Act, most people with disabilities are not aware of or do not understand those programs.
Clearly more public education is needed on this subject since, according to the latest census, 50 million Americans have some sort of a disability. Removing barriers to employment not only could benefit these particular individuals, but assist in the recovery of our ailing economy. The Jewish community can do a better job of incorporating the needs of the disabled community when we discuss employment, poverty, and human needs issues with our elected officials.
National Disability Employment Awareness Month will be held in October. Members of the faith community are collecting signatures for a statement of solidarity. The JCPA has signed on and encourages local organizations to sign on as well.
For more information on Jewish Disability Awareness month please see this great resource released by the Jewish Federations of North America.
For more information on this issue please contact Elyssa Koidin.