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NGA Chair Gov. Hutchinson: “Great Opportunity to Improve the Lives and Productivity” of Americans with Disabilities

Washington, D.C., January 31 – At the opening press conference of the 114th Winter Meeting of the National Governors Association (NGA), Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas addressed the historical upward trend in labor participation rate for working-aged people with disabilities. 

“There is great opportunity to improve the lives and productivity of those with disabilities,” said Gov. Hutchinson. Gov. Hutchinson, who is also responsible for leading NGA in the year ahead, pointed out the profound value of acting “whenever we can make digital access a tool” to create new opportunities.

As of the final quarter of 2021, the labor force participation rate for working-aged people with disabilities is now 2 full percentage points higher than it was before COVID-19. This means that people with disabilities are working in higher numbers than before the pandemic. As employers struggle to fill millions of open jobs across America and in many sectors, people with disabilities remain a fantastic talent pool. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, people with disabilities now have a 35.6 percent labor force participation rate, compared to 76.1 percent for those without disabilities. Thus, Governors who adopt a focused strategy for getting more people with disabilities into the workforce can dramatically grow success in their states. 

This past weekend, 19 Governors and their teams gathered at the Marriott Marquis in Washington to discuss the greatest challenges facing 54 states and territories of the United States. At the Winter Meeting, Gov. Hutchinson outlined his 2021-2022 Chairman’s Initiative on Computer Science Education. This new initiative’s core goals are increasing the number of high schools offering computer science courses, state funding for computer science education, and the “diversity of students participating in computer science education.” As noted by the NGA, there are more than “410,000 open computing jobs nationwide” that depend on computer science skills and content knowledge. Educational attainment gaps have only grown worse since the COVID-19 pandemic completely disrupted classroom instruction and accelerated the growth of digital learning. Before COVID-19, the national high school graduation rate for students with disabilities was only 68 percent compared to 86 percent of students without disabilities. 

At the same time, digital accessibility for students with disabilities is a critical challenge in an era where online learning has become commonplace, and most high-salary jobs depend on having digital skills. In America’s K-12 system, there are almost 7 million students with disabilities. Among them, there are over 25,000 blind or visually impaired students who will depend on having access to screen reader software or other assistive technology to participate in the classroom or enter the workforce. There are also thousands of students who are deaf or hard of hearing that need access to captions for remote learning and videos, and many students with mobility disabilities who need to learn how to use, and have access to, speech to text technology. Most of these technologies are built-in to new devices, but teachers and students need to know how to use them. 

Educational attainment gaps have only grown worse since the COVID-19 pandemic completely disrupted classroom instruction and accelerated the growth of digital learning. Before COVID-19, the national high school graduation rate for students with disabilities was only 68 percent compared to 86 percent of students without disabilities.

For years, digital accessibility advocates have pushed for public commitments “to supporting improved accessibility for students with disabilities.” From the development of the curriculum to local implementation of state plans, expanding computer science education in an accessible way takes careful consideration.

In speaking about his initiative for the year ahead, Gov. Hutchinson also commented on the continuing need to reduce barriers to employment, including in-person occupational licensing requirements. “It was pointed out to me today that some of our occupational licensing requirements for different professions [still] have in-person versus online requirements… we’re looking at to make sure it’s not a…difficulty for those with disabilities to getting that license.”

It is critical that state initiatives to drive post-pandemic recovery reflect the perspectives of individuals with disabilities impacted by these unemployment rates. In order to make the workforce more inclusive, and to find practical ways to make the workforce more accessible for the entire population, RespectAbility collects, summarizes, and publicizes ideas on key workforce solutions. Further, our team directly educates key decision-makers such as Governors and other elected officials on key issues and advocates for the expansion of best practices. 

On the sidelines of the National Governors Association annual meeting, RespectAbility spoke with Governors and staff members from Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Virginia, Tennessee, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. Below is some of the information shared with the Governors and their teams.

Key Information for Governors

As states and employers face labor shortages, people with disabilities are a ready-made solution. Together we can get them jobs!

The Opportunity

  • In 2019, 639,790 transition aged youth with disabilities left America’s K-12 school system.
  • Based on trends in national data, there could be as many as 157,000 more jobseekers with disabilities ready to fill labor shortages.
  • There are untold benefits to the American economy if we can put people with disabilities to work, including, for example, a $300,000 dollars per beneficiary savings for anyone who goes off of SSDI.

The Challenge

  • As of 2019, in America, there were 20,323,589 working-age people with disabilities and out of that number 7,896,135 had jobs.
  • Before COVID-19, the United States had a 38.8 percent disability employment rate.
  • In the class of 2019, the national high school graduation rate for students with disabilities was only 68 percent, compared to 85 percent of students without disabilities.

Action Steps

  • Direct your state workforce development board to adopt key metrics and close the gap in labor force participation rates between people with and without disabilities.
  • Adopt a national market-based model, based on Washington state, for personal care services, eliminating workplace barriers, and allowing talented workers with disabilities to support themselves while contributing to the economy.
  • Appoint or designate someone in your cabinet with responsibility for pushing agencies to improve skills training for jobseekers with disabilities, support cost-effective solutions, and make your state a model of how to advance opportunities for you r constituents with disabilities.
  • Invest in expanding cost-effective school-to-work transition programs like Project SEARCH, expand competitive integrated employment opportunities for youth with disabilities and expand career pathaways into the caring economy and other career fields.
  • Create online cohort-based apprenticeships for people with disabilities who want to work in knowledge industries. Focus areas could be state government, finance, computers, nonprofit leadership and more.
  • Blend and braid different funding streams to ensure that your state pulls down the full federal match of funding for your state’s vocational rehabilitation program.

The public is encouraged to reach out to their governors on these issues. Contact information for Governors can be found at To learn more about RespectAbility’s advocacy work, please visit our Policy website.

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