Last week, the U.S. Senate defeated the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD). It was yet another brutal disappointment for Americans with disabilities. Sadly, despite the fact that America passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) twenty-two years ago, Americans with disabilities are no more likely to be employed today than they were before the ADA was the law of the land.
Billions in both private and public sector dollars were spent post ADA to fix sidewalks, transportation, and entrances to buildings so that people with disabilities could have access to the American dream -- education and job opportunities. However, only 27.6% percent of working age people with disabilities are actually working. This is costing hundreds of billions in tax dollars each year for disability payments.
What's wrong, and why isn't more being done to end this crisis?
Thirty- seven years ago, America passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA mandated to state and local governments that children with disabilities had a right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) that prepares them for further education, employment and independent living. Since then dedicated public education professionals -- teachers, therapists, superintendents of Public Instruction and others have gone to Herculean efforts to provide services for children with special needs.
Likewise, children with disabilities themselves, with strong support from parents, have gone enormous lengths to prepare for work and independent lives. The result is that many of today's young adults with disabilities have been able to accomplish vital academic and life skills and are ready for work. Additionally, because of breakthroughs, people who are blind or are unable to speak on their own can now use technology to succeed in ways previously only imagined.
Still, at age 22, when services for young Americans with disabilities run out, many can find themselves like a player in a game of musical chairs where when the music stops and there simply aren't enough jobs for them. They're out. Only this isn't a game. It's life.
With urging from Congressman George Miller, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently identified and evaluated 45 federal government programs that are intended to support employment for people with disabilities. Bottom line, our government's solutions for helping Americans with disabilities achieve the American dream -- work and independence -- are a mess. Coordination, performance metrics and transparency are desperately needed.
Thankfully, a talented bipartisan group of elected officials are now really bringing to focus on these issues. Senator Tom Harkin, Chairman of the HELP committee, is leading the way in the Senate with ranking member Senator Mike Enzi. In the House of Representatives two prominent Republicans, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Rep. Pete Sessions, both of whom have children with Down syndrome, are considering solutions through the prism of fiscal conservatism. The White House issued an executive order to hire a 100,000 qualified people with disabilities for open government jobs over time. Still, President Obama has yet to personally address this issue in a public forum. He can do much more.
At the state level, however, Gov. Jack Markell, Chair of the National Governor's Association, has made solving these challenges into his chair's initiative. His exciting work, A Better Bottom Line: Employing People with Disabilities, focuses on the employment challenges that affect individuals with intellectual and other significant disabilities. He is bringing together public, private sector and non-profit leaders to come up with creative and bipartisan solutions that can enable people with disabilities to go from being dependent to independent.
Academic groups and healthcare providers, including the Association of University Centers on Disabilities and the Kennedy Krieger Institute, are also doing their part to learn how to prepare young people with disabilities for jobs and independence.
Today millions of Americans with disabilities who are educated, capable and willing are relegated to a life of miserable payments from the federal treasuries whose coffers are already bare. However, what they really need instead are transitional supports and an employer willing to see their ABILITIES, and not just their disabilities. As has been shown by Walgreens, Specialisterne and other companies that have hired people with disabilities, these employees can be exceptionally reliable, talented and profitable workers.
America can't afford financially or morally to pay people to stay home when supports to accommodate their special needs can enable them to work and be independent. There is a long way to go to solve these challenges and it cannot be done by the government alone. But enabling Americans -- including those with disabilities -- to achieve the American Dream is a goal worth fighting for.
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, who has a disability, is the co-founder of the Mizrahi Family Charitable Trust and is also the Founder & President of Laszlo Strategies. Mizrahi does not have a financial stake in this topic. Her firm and her charitable trust work to further causes related to medical science and disabilities.