A Milestone Year for People with Disabilities in Healthcare and the Workplace

2014 was a year of solid progress for people with disabilities. It's a year that gave us the Affordable Care Act, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act, and final Section 503 regulations that require federal contractors to hire more skilled workers with disabilities. It's also the 15th year of the Olmsted Act.

While employment outcomes for workers with disabilities have been a mixed bag -- we can expect more progress in 2015 based on the milestones we celebrated this year.

Take the new Affordable Care Act. There now are six incentives for the 50 states to hook their long-term programs onto the ACA, including Money Follows the Person, Community First Choice, and other plans that improve people with disabilities' access to care in the community -- rather than in institutions or nursing homes, where care has typically been provided for this group.

Under the ACA, people with disabilities also stay on their parents' healthcare policy up to age 26, which is especially important for mental health care needs. Research shows that earlier diagnosis and intervention decreases the negative impact that mental health issues have on individuals.

The ACA also eliminates the pre-existing condition clause, makes cost capping illegal, and requires insurers to pay for rehabilitation as well as habilitation. These new benefits make a tremendous difference in the lives of individuals with disabilities who need healthcare coverage now and in the future.

At the same time, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act offers great hope for people with disabilities -- especially youth. By requiring state agencies to now work with kids with disabilities from the start, youth will have a better understanding of the education and employment opportunities available to them.

WIOA also expands policies for accommodating kids with disabilities in and special needs in school, and lets them stay in high school longer. There's also a provision for ensuring people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, such as autism, have streamlined access to employment and community care.

The workplace is getting better for people with disabilities, too. The U.S. Department of Labor's finalized 503 regulations task the nation's 250,000 federal contractors and subcontractors with employing 7 percent of their workforce with people with disabilities. Businesses now are aggressively looking for new ways to find and hire skilled workers with disabilities, which will push unemployment rates down.

On the state level, states like Delaware, Massachusetts and Maryland are trying to hire more people with disabilities through State As a Model Employer (SAME) initiatives. They're shifting how they administer public policy and hire for public roles in order to capture more skilled workers with disabilities. This includes changing job application, training and accommodation processes -- such as setting up centralized assistive technology funds to make it easier to accommodate a worker's needs.

Health & Disability Advocates is working with Illinois and Oregon, among others, to help identify opportunities to improve both their employment and healthcare programs for people with disabilities. HDA also is helping Illinois facilitate the Employment First program, and Governor Quinn is committing to hiring an Employment Czar, which we believe will be carried on by the incoming Governor Rauner.

Finally, the 15-year-old Olmsted Act continues to have great impact. In the last two years, 17 states have lost lawsuits that have paved the way for integration and community access to healthcare for people with disabilities.

Think Beyond The Label, which HDA runs, is hearing from more businesses, including federal contractors, about identifying opportunities to recruit skilled workers with disabilities. Think Beyond the Label offers training to businesses looking for hiring guidance, and this year held four online career fairs with 30 businesses for more than 1,200 job seekers with disabilities across 42 states.

With the career fairs, businesses are not interested in what someone's disability is -- and knowing doesn't matter. The process is all about helping hiring managers learn about a job seeker's abilities and the unique perspectives that they can bring to the workplace, which in turn, helps companies to innovate in the marketplace.

People with disabilities are the largest and most heterogeneous minority group in America with around $220 billion in purchasing power, according to the latest U.S. census. While regulation and policy changes do work, it is demographics and purchase power that often drive business decisions.

2014 was a year that proved this message true. All in all, we celebrated a big year towards making disability healthcare and employment a priority at the state and federal level. As a person with a disability, it's hard not to like the future and the hope that next year will bring.