Washington, D.C., March 14 – As nationally 111,804 jobs were gained by people with disabilities, 4,040 people with disabilities in Oklahoma were part of this gain in the workforce. Oklahoma now ranks 29th in the nation for employment rates of people with disabilities with 127,608 of the 339,773 working-age (18-64) Oklahomans with disabilities having jobs. The newly published 2018 Annual Disability Statistics Compendium shows Oklahoma has a 37.6 disability employment rate.
Newly-elected Gov. Kevin Sttit is well positioned to support further job gains among Oklahomans with disabilities. In 2018, Oklahoma’s Department of Rehabilitation Services (DRS), the state agency primarily responsible for helping job seekers with disabilities, reported they had successfully taken “more than 3,400 people [with disabilities] looking for work off wait lists and placed them in jobs.”
DRS also has a special commitment to supporting youth with intellectual and developmental disabilities through a model program called Project SEARCH, a proven business-led program where students with disabilities get hands on real-world job skills in their final year of high school. Nationwide, SEARCH already had served more than 3000 young adults with disabilities by 2015 and 78 percent of them found jobs. The businesses that participate are un-subsidized and incorporate the talents of the students with disabilities fully into their office. As reported on DRS’ website, they currently support “three young adult programs in Oklahoma City, one young adult program in Yukon, and one high school transition program for seniors in Enid.”
“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.”
A National Issue
Beyond Oklahoma, 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, Walgreens, 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 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, continuing job growth for people with disabilities will be a crucial indicator of the health of the American economy.