It's the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Yet District of Columbia residents with disabilities have very little to celebrate, as only about one-third of them are employed. This lack of opportunity creates poverty, powerlessness and worse.
One in five Americans has a disability. A recent Kessler Foundation survey shows that most working-age people with disabilities want to work. While persistent stigmas remain an obstacle, evidence shows that individuals with disabilities can be highly successful workers. For example, Virgin Airways founder Sir Richard Branson and finance wizard Charles Schwab are dyslexic. Scientist Stephen Hawking uses a wheelchair.
Today in the District, 40,200 youths with disabilities between the ages of 16-20 are preparing to enter the labor pool. They have high expectations but face a distinct set of challenges, including false myths about their potential value to employers. But individuals with disabilities are as a diverse a population as any other. Often they simply need a little help transitioning into the workforce.
As they go into the workforce, people who are blind, deaf or non-verbal frequently use assistive technology. Similarly, people with intellectual disabilities can benefit greatly from internship opportunities and job coaches. Walgreens, Ernst and Young, Lowes, AMC Theaters, Lockheed and other companies have proven that people with disabilities can be extremely capable and loyal workers.
Vocational rehabilitation programs in Washington, D.C., helped 2,201 individuals with disabilities find work in 2012. They are now doing a better job of helping young people with disabilities transition from school to work. But more must be done. When individuals with disabilities are unemployed they can be forced to rely on government benefits. In 2013 more than a million Americans between 13-25 received $8.7 billion in Supplementary Security Income benefits.
Thankfully, programs like Project SEARCH and Bridges to Work continue to get outstanding results for employers, people with disabilities and taxpayers alike. Indeed, the Project SEARCH site at the Smithsonian is a model for the country. If D.C. replicates such programs, it can reduce the employment gap while saving significant tax money.
The private sector has a major role to play. Federal contractors are also vital because of the new Section 503, which encourages contractors to hire people with disabilities. Additionally, some restaurants on H Street have prioritized hiring members of the deaf community because of their proximity to Gallaudet University.
Importantly, the federal government continues to be an important employer of people with disabilities. In 2012, the federal government announced that almost 12 percent of its employees had some form of disability.
People with disabilities, like anyone else, deserve the opportunity to work. More must be done to allow D.C. residents with disabilities to experience the dignity, friendships, income and purpose that only jobs can provide.
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is president of RespectAbilityUSA.org, a nonprofit organization working to enable people with disabilities to achieve the American dream. Dyslexic herself, she also knows what it means to raise a child with multiple disabilities. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions.