Washington, D.C., March 7 – During the 2019 National Governors’ Association winter meeting, newly elected Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker vowed to make people with disabilities “one of the priorities” as he rebuilds his state’s policies and programs.
Speaking of the budgetary challenges created by his predecessor, Pritzker said, “services and programs, including some employment programs…just got wiped out.” He emphasized the need to “rebuild these services, many of the opportunities” that people with disabilities were using to enter Illinois’ economy.
In terms of making his state more inclusive of people with disabilities, Pritzker added, “You have to think of it as an entrepreneurial endeavor in the nonprofit world.”
The newly published 2018 Annual Disability Statistics Compendium shows there are 691,453 working-age people (ages 18-64) with disabilities living in Illinois. Out of that number, 263,464 Illinoisans with disabilities have jobs. That means the Prairie State has a disability employment rate of 38.1 percent. Further analysis by the nonpartisan advocacy group RespectAbility shows that Illinois ranks 25th out of the 50 states for disability employment. Census Bureau data also shows that Illinois saw the second biggest job gains for people with disabilities with more than 20,000 new jobs even as 50,000 people without disabilities left Illinois’ workforce.
“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 budgetary challenges that have pained Illinois over the last several years, the Land of Lincoln is home to innovative programs that are blazing a new trail for people with disabilities. A partnership between theDepartment of Special Education in the College of Education at the University of Illinois and Microsoft is creating profound new opportunities for people with disabilities. The Autism Program (TAP) has created “University of Illinois-to-Microsoft hiring pipeline” for neurodivergent students interested in pursuing a career at one of the world’s biggest corporations. Back in June, Microsoft donated $200,000 to launch the program.
A National Issue
Beyond Illinois, 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, and CVS 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.”
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.