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Employment is priority: People with disabilities have value as workers and consumers

By Rodger DeRose

This opinion piece, written by Kessler Foundation's President and CEO Rodger DeRose, was published in The Hill, on July 24, 2015. To view the piece on The Hill's website, visit

Sunday, July 26, marks the 25th anniversary of one of the most significant pieces of civil rights legislation – the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The ADA – prohibiting discrimination and outlining equal opportunity for people with disabilities – has opened doors for the largest minority group in the country, some 56 million people and growing.

Take a look around, and you can see the ADA’s impact. Public buildings and mass transportation are more accessible and curb cuts and ramps are commonplace.

As the physical barriers are removed, more people with disabilities gained access to community activities and equal education. Now more than ever, these individuals are graduating college and receiving post-secondary degrees. Employment, however, still lags behind the ADA’s advances. Steadily, progress is being made.

Over the last nine months, the employment picture has improved for people with disabilities, according to the National Trends in Disability Employment issued monthly in conjunction with the Bureau of Labor Statistics jobs report. In June 2015, the labor force participation rate was 31 percent, a 3.7 percent increase from June 2014. The gains are encouraging. The challenge is how to fuel this trend and make real progress toward closing the gap in employment.

The good news is that the need exists. Because of a lack of qualified applicants, nearly 33 percent of job openings go unfilled (Wall Street Journal). Unfilled jobs cost the U.S. economy $160 billion a year (Fortune Magazine). The needs will increase as Baby Boomers retire, creating more openings for younger workers. Are people with disabilities ready to fill these roles? The answer, according to the 2015 Kessler Foundation National Employment and Disability Survey is a resounding, “Yes!”

The survey revealed that the majority of people with disabilities – 68 percent – are working or involved in work-related activities, including actively preparing for employment and searching for jobs. Many of those who are working are looking for more hours. Obstacles that once held them back, such as lack of transportation, are dissipating. While some jobseekers faced employers who assumed they couldn’t do the job because of their disability, many overcame this barrier and proved their worth.

Clearly, people with disabilities are striving to work and overcoming barriers in their job searches and in the workplace. And employers are recognizing the potential for people with disabilities in their workplaces and the contributions they can make to the economy.

Less than two weeks before the ADA anniversary, Nike launched a new pair of sneakers specifically targeted for people with disabilities to make putting on shoes easier, increasing their independence. This is a landmark moment, as it is one of the first times that the buying power of the disability community – more than $175 billion a year – has been recognized. 

Positive PR continues to pour onto Nike and consumers are praising the brand. Customer loyalty is growing among people with disabilities, their friends and families and others who are interested in disability issues. And it all started because a person with cerebral palsy presented a need to Nike executives. Individuals with disabilities bring unique perspectives and solutions that truly enhance the workplace and, oftentimes, increase market share. They just need the opportunity.

Other major corporations are making efforts to include more people with disabilities in their workplaces. OfficeMax and PepsiCo, for example, are partnering with nonprofits and vocational rehabilitation agencies on hiring programs that integrate employees with disabilities into their workplaces, where they work side-by-side with their co-workers without disabilities.

Forward-thinking social enterprise businesses are providing jobs and services that benefit their communities.  At Destination Desserts, a St. Louis-based mobile dessert truck, workers with disabilities sell their baked goods to customers in the Gateway. In New Jersey, Hudson Community Enterprises, a document management company, employs more than 400 people – 70 percent have disabilities.

College-based programs like College-to-Careers at San Diego State University are helping students with disabilities transition to employment. Faith communities in Tennessee, Texas, Minnesota and Kentucky are working hard to connect their members with disabilities to employers in their communities. These examples of innovative approaches to employment, all funded by Kessler Foundation, are helping to fill the need for skilled workers while providing needed services to consumers. 

Americans with disabilities are striving to work and bring unique talents to their companies. Employers have openings to fill and are under constant pressure to increase shareholder value. We are already seeing successful strategies that are leading to more Americans with disabilities earning paychecks, paying taxes and using discretionary spending to purchase products from companies that design products and services that meet unmet needs like Nike’s new product. Let’s combine these ingredients into solutions that will advance our nation’s productivity and economy. If we all work together, we can create lasting change that fills needed job roles with talented Americans of all abilities.

Rodger DeRose is President and CEO of Kessler Foundation, a major nonprofit organization in the field of disability. Kessler Foundation is a global leader in rehabilitation research that seeks to improve cognition, mobility and long-term outcomes, including employment, for people with neurological disabilities caused by diseases and injuries of the brain and spinal cord. Additionally, Kessler Foundation leads the nation in funding innovative programs that expand opportunities for employment for people with disabilities.