Washington, D.C., March 8 – During the 2019 National Governors’ Association winter meeting, Gov. Matt Bevin made a strong commitment to empowering people with disabilities in Kentucky. “One of the most powerful things we could do is to elevate the awareness level of the need and the numbers of people who are affected with disabilities,” he said, adding that his stated “goal is to destigmatize” disability.
Bevin also said, “Kentucky’s environment needs every single person that has any capacity and desire to be part of the solution for our workforce.”
The newly published 2018 Annual Disability Statistics Compendium shows there are 430,265 working-age people (ages 18-64) with disabilities living in Kentucky. Out of that number, only 129,954 have jobs. That means the Bluegrass State only has a 30.2 percent disability employment rate. Further analysis by the nonpartisan advocacy group RespectAbility shows that Kentucky ranks 47th out of the 50 states for disability employment and that more than 3,900 people with disabilities left Kentucky’s 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.”
Despite the jobs losses experienced by Kentuckians with disabilities, there are model programs that have a positive impact in the state. In Louisville, the Transitional Learning Center serves youth with various disabilities through a public-private partnership between UPS, the school system and Kentucky’s Office of Vocational Rehabilitation. At the Center, youth with disabilities receive the soft skills training they need to succeed. Likewise, the Best Buy Distribution Center in Shepherdsville is a model employer whose efficiency has been improved by integrating employees with disabilities into their workforce. These examples reflect the types of best practices that have helped other states to dramatically increase their employment rates for people citizens with disabilities.
A National Issue
Beyond Kentucky, 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 important issues they care about.”
This year, Gov. Bevin will face reelection, but he is optimistic about the impact he can have on the lives of Kentuckians with disabilities. He is committed to ensuring that people with disabilities in his state have “the opportunity to be engaged, to be employed, to be contributing.” As the political campaign season heats up, economic opportunities for people with disabilities will be a crucial indicator of Kentucky’s economy.