As the nation’s economy continues to recover and people return to the workforce, it is important to be mindful of the fact that people with disabilities still face barriers in the labor market.
In July, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics released new data that showed good news, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities fell to 13.6 percent in the second quarter of 2012. Yet it also showed that only one in five were participating in the labor market. The unemployment rate does not reflect that many people with disabilities, frustrated by workplaces that are unwelcome, may have simply given up their job searches or that the unemployment rate for those without disabilities is 8.4 percent, over five points lower.
Such sobering statistics remind us that we cannot be complacent in our work on behalf of people with disabilities. People with disabilities want to work, and given the opportunity, are among the most committed and dedicated employees. They often contribute to creating positive cultures within their organizations.
We must encourage more employers to be open to – and even proactive in – hiring a person with a disability. A handful of companies have been pioneers in this regard; they recognize the positive impact these hiring practices have on their bottom lines.
There is a concerted federal effort to create opportunities for people with disabilities. President Obama issued an executive order that set a goal: by 2015, ensure that 100,000 federal workforce hires are people with disabilities. This order has already reversed a nine-year decline in the federal employment participation rate for working age people with disabilities.
In Massachusetts, the Patrick administration continues to advance a number of initiatives as well. Governor Patrick’s Strategic Plan to Make Massachusetts a Model Employer for People with Disabilities provides a set of recommendations for affirmatively promoting the hiring and retention of people with disabilities in the executive branch of state government. Since the effort commenced in 2007, the percentage of persons with a disability employed in the executive branch increased by approximately 70 percent. The state also secured grant funding to outfit the Commonwealth’s 34 One-Stop Career Centers with assistive technology, and it restructured programs to be more responsive to the needs of clients with disabilities.
But no one sector can do this alone. Partnership allows foundations, private industry, and the public sector to leverage their advantages and overcome their limitations.
When the three work together, they maximize their impact and expedite progress for people with disabilities. This is the model that the Ruderman Family Foundation supports with its funding of Transitions to Work, a template for future job training programs for people with disabilities.
Those enrolled in Transitions to Work learn, help, and develop specific job skills within Hebrew Senior Life’s NewBridge on the Charles campus, a retirement community just outside of Boston. Following specific training and learning, individuals are qualified to work, either full-time or part-time, at NewBridge, and are matched with vacant positions when they become available.
This innovative program, with support from the Ruderman Family Foundation and Combined Jewish Philanthropies and run by Jewish Vocational Services, is instilling something even more valuable than job training: self-esteem.
This year, Governor Patrick visited NewBridge on the Charles and praised the program for its innovative approach. As he spoke to the young men and women in the program, he talked about the irony that despite this very rough economy, there are still thousands of jobs in the state that remain unfilled because there are no qualified candidates. We must not accept this statistic.
We believe that partnership is the answer. We accomplish more together. We encourage employers, foundations, and the public sector to explore opportunities for collaboration. Such partnerships are win-win, and we believe they are the sharpest arrow in our quiver to increase employment among people with disabilities.
Jay Ruderman is president of the Ruderman Family Foundation. Joanne F. Goldstein is secretary of Labor and Workforce Development in Massachusetts.