The staggering unemployment and poverty rates among people with disabilities is a reminder of how much work still needs to be done to protect this underserved demographic.
Sunday marks 25 years since Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, a bill that aimed to give the group equal opportunities to pursue jobs and public and private services. While some vital progress has been made, people with disabilities still face incredible challenges when it comes to obtaining employment and becoming financially stable.
President George Bush signs the Americans with Disabilities Act during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House July 26, 1990.
Last year, 17.1 percent of people with disabilities were employed, according to the Bureau for Labor Statistics. The BLS only started tracking such stats in 2008.
While the estimates aren't directly comparable, a report released by the Berkeley Journal of Employment & Labor Law argues that employment figures have actually declined since the passing of the ADA.
In 1990, men with "work limitations" had an employment rate of 50.4 percent. Women who had similar restrictions had an employment rate of 40.7 percent at the time, the report noted.
Bottom line, people with disabilities are twice as likely to be poor today than people who don’t have disabilities, NPR reported.
Part of the problem, experts say, is that the ADA didn’t push the hiring of people with disabilities.
“It mandated providing accommodations, physical accommodations so people could access buildings, but it didn't say hiring people with disabilities was a priority,” Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, told the Baltimore Sun.
A major issue people with disabilities face is wariness from potential employers. Many hiring managers are uncertain about how they’ll be expected to cater to people with disabilities and therefore often opt to exclude this group altogether, NPR reported.
"Employers are scared to hire us," Debbie Eagle, who’s been blind since she was born, told NPR. "Because they don't know what kind of accommodations we require. And if they don't meet what we consider to be reasonable accommodations, they're afraid we'll sue them."
Eagle, 43, has a bachelor’s degree in special education and said she’d love more than anything to be able to find work and stop relying on government assistance.
Michael Morris, executive director of the National Disability Institute, agrees with Eagle and told NPR that the issue at hand is that “attitudes are slow to change.”
Veterans, both those with disabilities and without, are facing an overwhelming amount of such stigma when they return home.
While most veterans come back without any emotional issues, experts say that hiring managers are skeptical that vets will “go postal” while on the job, USA Today reported in 2013.
Veteran James Dixon, who is currently unemployed, speaks with a representative from a company at the Hiring Our Heroes Veterans/Military job fair on May 15, 2012 in Utica, New York.
"They didn't even hide it," Timothy "Rhino" Paige, a former Air Force pilot, told USA Today of the discrimination he faced while trying to get a job.
Paige developed post-traumatic stress disorder in 2005 when he was tasked with transporting the remains of deceased Americans from Iraq.
There’s often the pervasive notion that people with disabilities just want to “milk the system” and avoid working at all costs. But experts say that’s rarely the case.
“They’re broke, bored, poor, and they're tired of it,” Susan Webb, who works for an employment network in Phoenix, told the Atlantic.
But when employment opportunities do become available, they’re often low-wage roles that don’t offer the same kind of medical coverage they get from government benefits.
“They might see a lot of low-wage work with scant labor protections. Nothing that comes with the kind of health insurance you get on disability,” Olga Khazan, wrote in a piece for the Atlantic. “Would you trade a guaranteed check for a fast food job?”
To give people with disabilities a chance to thrive, a number of companies are working to develop business models that make more room for people with disabilities.
Seven years ago, Walgreens launched an initiative to hire people with disabilities at their distribution centers and offer the same pay and roles, while also demanding the same expectations, the Sun reported.
Employees with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and other disabilities now make up 12 percent of Walgreens’ distribution center workforce.
Other companies have developed models around the strengths of people with disabilities.
Rising Tide, for example, a car wash in Parkland, Florida, was first developed by a family that was eager to find a suitable job for their son who has autism.
Father and son duo John and Tom D’Eri came up with the idea when their son and brother, Andrew, was about to turn 22 and would age out of the system.
The D’Eris realized that a car wash business would be an ideal venture for people with autism since the tasks require precise attention to detail, which is a characteristic people with autism bear.
Eighty percent of the staff is made up of people with autism and is expected to expand to three locations by next year, according to NationSwell.
Prospector Theater, a nonprofit movie theater in Ridgefield, Connecticut, has also committed to hiring people with physical and developmental disabilities.
The company finds each employee’s “inherent sparkle” so that they can do the job that satisfies them most, and each gets individualized training, Mike Santini, director of development, told The Huffington Post.
People with disabilities make up 60 percent of the theater’s staff.
"It's an incredibly talented pool," Santini, told HuffPost. "They're an untapped resource. They're really excited about their jobs, and they're really dedicated. They just need a workplace that's accommodating and welcoming."