Washington, D.C., March 7 – Gov. Kim Reynolds pointed out Iowa’s dedication to the disability community during the 2019 National Governor’s Association winter meeting in Washington, D.C. She also stressed the importance of including people with disabilities in the workforce.
“They’re some of our best workers, they absolutely are,” she said. “We’re at the lowest unemployment rate in the country and so we want to make sure that every Iowan has the opportunity to be successful and that’s a key piece of it.”
The newly published 2018 Annual Disability Statistics Compendium shows there are 170,186 working-age (ages 18-64) people with disabilities living in Iowa. Out of that number, only 77,746 have jobs. The Hawkeye State currently has a 45.7 percent disability employment rate. Further analysis by the nonpartisan advocacy group RespectAbility shows that Iowa ranks 9th out of the 50 states. However, 2,670 Iowans with disabilities exited the workforce last year.
“Our nation was founded on the principle that anyone who works hard should be able to get ahead in life,” said Hon. Steve Bartlett, current Chairman of RespectAbility, who co-authored the Americans with Disabilities Act when he was in Congress. “People with disabilities deserve the opportunity to earn an income and achieve independence, just like anyone else.”
Iowa consistently has ranked among the best states for workers with disabilities. However, Iowa’s ranking is down from RespectAbility’s previous reporting. This is part of a broader slowdown in economic growth for people with disabilities.
Iowans with disabilities have benefitted from a wide variety of policies, programs and practices to enable them to enter the workforce. Entrepreneurship has been a strong focus of several vocational rehabilitation programs supporting people with a range disabilities interested in pursuing everything from agricultural business to running a successful coffee shop.
The Iowa State Workforce Board has played a crucial role in making the workforce and the workforce system more accessible to people with disabilities. Beyond standing committees mandated by federal law to supervise workforce programs, Iowa’s State Board also coordinates a disability access committee that looks closely at making programs more accessible to job seekers with disabilities. Unlike many states, Iowa also has worked hard to ensure that each local workforce board has a self-advocate with a disability active and participating on that board. This has helped the state to remove many critical barriers to employment.
A National Issue
Beyond Iowa, how is the workforce changing for people with disabilities? What is driving these changes? The answer is simple. According to Vincenzo Piscopo of the Coca-Cola Company: “People with disabilities bring a unique skill set that it is very valuable for companies.” He went on to add, “As it relates to employment and competitiveness in the workplace, we have to stop thinking of disability as a liability and start thinking of it as an asset.”
Brand-name companies such as JP Morgan Chase, Coca-Cola, Ernst & Young, IBM, Walgreen’s, Starbucks, CVS and Microsoft show people with disabilities are successful employees. These companies also know that these workers improve the bottom line. “People with disabilities bring unique characteristics and talents to the workplace,” said RespectAbility President Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi. “Hiring people with disabilities is a win-win-win for employers, people with disabilities and consumers alike.”
As more companies hire employees with disabilities, conversations are shifting to focus on inclusion. “Disability inclusion is no longer about automatic doors, curb cuts, ramps, and legislation,” says Jim Sinocchi, Head of the Office of Disability Inclusion at JP Morgan Chase. “Today, the new era of disability inclusion is about “assimilation” – hiring professionals with disabilities into the robust culture of the firm.”
According to the Census Bureau, there are more than 56 million Americans living with a disability. Disabilities include visible conditions such as spinal cord injuries, visual impairments or hearing loss and invisible disabilities such as learning disabilities, mental health or Autism.
An Election Issue
Voter research conducted by RespectAbility shows how disability issues connect to all aspects of American life. “Fully three-quarters of likely voters either have a disability themselves or have a family member or a close friend with disabilities,” said former Representative and Dallas Mayor Steve Bartlett. “People with disabilities are politically active swing voters, and candidates should take note of the important issues they care about.”
As 2019 moves into 2020 and the political campaign season heats up, Iowa will once again take center stage during the campaign season. The continuing job growth for people with disabilities will be a crucial indicator of the health of Iowa’s – and America’s – economy.