Washington, D.C., March 7 – During the 2019 National Governors’ Association winter meeting, newly elected Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer pledged to “forge relationships” with her state’s disability community. She said people with disabilities are “a strong, vocal, powerful community in the state of Michigan” and “everyone needs a path to prosperity and dignity in work.”
The newly published 2018 Annual Disability Statistics Compendium shows that there are 727,451 working-age (ages 18-64) people with disabilities living in Michigan. Out of that number, only 246,196 Michiganders with disabilities have jobs. That means the Great Lake State has a disability employment rate of only 33.8 percent. Further analysis by the nonpartisan advocacy group RespectAbility shows that Michigan ranks 41st out of the 50 states for disability employment. Census Bureau data also shows that more than 8,000 people with disabilities lost jobs in the state of Michigan 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.”
Under Gov. Whitmer’s predecessor, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has been successful in matching workers with disabilities to jobs in the community. According to Newsweek, the department has helped match 36,586 people with jobs in 4,600 different companies with the average rate of pay being $14.74. The department does this by not only assessing the talents for the people they serve, but by figuring out exactly what needs businesses have. With more job vacancies and the rising numbers of working-age people with disabilities, the article states that more people with disabilities are getting hired.
The model set forth by Department of Health and Human Services shows that when people with disabilities are given access to the workforce, both the individual and the employers benefit.
Looking at the year ahead for people with disabilities, Gov. Whitmer said, “obviously we have a lot work to do,” but she made it clear she will “build a coalition to get the work done.” Whitmer also stressed the importance of partnerships with all stakeholders in the community and acknowledged that this journey will require working with the Republican-controlled state legislature.
A National Issue
Beyond Michigan, 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 a politically active, swing vote, 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.