The civil rights issue we need to talk about

December 14, 2011

Jay Ruderman is president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which focuses on the inclusion of people with disabilities into daily life in the Jewish community in greater Boston and Israel. The foundation also seeks to lead the community through philanthropic partnerships and innovative competitions.

The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is slightly over 44 percent. Compare that with the slightly over 8 percent unemployment rate in the total population. Access to employment for those with disabilities is a civil rights issue, and one that could affect anyone at any time.

The Americans with Disabilities Act, now 20 years old, and a host of state accessibility laws have been instrumental in improving access for those with disabilities to public transportation, office buildings and public bathrooms. But the ability to participate in “normal” life, for most people with disabilities, is not just about accessible transportation and sidewalk ramps. It means finding a job, supporting themselves and their families, paying taxes and contributing to the well-being of their community. It means being a full citizen in every regard.

Approximately one in five individuals in the U.S. — 54 million people — has a disability, and 35 million people have what is defined by the Census Bureau as a “severe disability.” But, to date, it has been easier, as a society, to ignore people with disabilities rather than to spend the time and creative energy to develop innovative solutions to their needs.

This attitude is hurting American business.

The person in a wheelchair, after all, could become a vice president of information technology, if he gets the same opportunities and mentoring that others receive. A little person might become the head of occupational therapy with some minor modifications to the workplace. The person with Down syndrome can help teachers and students as a teacher’s aide. The person with mental illness might be the advertising genius your company needs to take on your competition. The list of possibilities is practically endless.

Our laws are not at the heart of the employment challenge facing those with disabilities. Every person making a recruiting and hiring decision stands to be able to turn the situation around. HR managers in smaller companies need better training. They also need a passion for thinking creatively when it comes to hiring. Experience like this has been gained by hiring managers in larger companies — companies that have instituted formal policies to promote hiring of people with disabilities. But, as the numbers show, actions on the part of larger companies are not enough.

A completely different approach is required for companies that stand between those with disabilities and employment. Our country’s decades-old practice of providing general-skills training to those with disabilities is failing. This approach does not take into account the positions that employers need to fill. Instead, the nonprofit agencies that train those with disabilities, often with government funding, should go to America’s biggest employers and ask them what positions are short-staffed, and then provide the appropriate training for those with disabilities to take the jobs.

All Americans should ask themselves whether the institutions with which they affiliate are truly open to all people with disabilities. If they are not, then everyday individuals must demand that these institutions be fully accessible.

Until those among us with a disability can have equal access to education, jobs and all of the things that make our nation great and our lives fulfilling, we have a civil rights problem — one that must be addressed in the most direct and open way.

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