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Note: The following op-ed was co-authored by Jay Ruderman, President of the Ruderman Family Foundation, and Jim Langevin (D-RI) the first quadriplegic to serve in the House of Representatives . The piece was published July 26th in NY Daily News
The world has been transformed since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enshrined into law 30 years ago. The landmark civil rights law changed the landscape of our nation by igniting substantial policy and culture change in American society. With its enactment, people with disabilities are increasingly included in the economy, integrated into mainstream society, and living independent lives. We can and should be proud of the progress we have achieved, but work remains to even the playing field and open doors, especially as people with disabilities continue to face challenges with accessible transportation and employment — issues that have been exacerbated by the global pandemic.
As the spread of COVID-19 swings between a flattened curve and a resurgence in areas of the country, the United States economy is experiencing a rollercoaster ride with the unemployment rate dropping to 11.1% in June, down from 13.3% in May and 14.7% in April. This is a pivotal moment and we must ask ourselves: How do we tap into one of the greatest untapped resources available in America?
People with disabilities ages 16-64 still maintain a substantially higher unemployment rate than those without a disability — 17.4% as of last month, more than one-third higher than unemployment for people without disabilities. In February, before the pandemic’s intensification in the U.S., unemployment for people with disabilities was at 7.3%, over twice the national rate of 3.5%.
An arguably even more powerful indicator of these employment disparities is labor force participation, as the unemployment rate only accounts for those who are jobless, actively seeking work, and available to take a job. U.S. Department of Labor data shows that as of last month, only 34.4% of working-age people with disabilities participated in the workforce, compared to 76.2% of people without disabilities.
At the same time, the pandemic presents an unprecedented opportunity to optimize the workplace and increase employment opportunities for people with disabilities. It is likely that many companies will continue to work at least partially remotely. Further, it is estimated that over half of U.S. workers hold jobs that could be performed outside of the office to some degree. Global Workplace Analytics found in its recently published Global Work-from-Home Experience Survey that 80% of the workforce wants to work remotely at least part of the time.
By continuing to allow remote work, companies could reduce overhead costs, and in hiring more people with disabilities, they could simultaneously increase revenue. Accenture’s 2018 study, ”Getting to Equal: The Disability Inclusion Advantage” revealed that on average, a group of 45 companies, which stand out on the employment and inclusion of people with disabilities, had achieved 28% higher revenue, double the net income, and 30% higher economic profit margins over a four-year period than 95 comparable companies that were less inclusive.
What, then, holds companies back when it comes to hiring more people with disabilities? It often comes down to concerns over the anticipated cost of accommodations. In a physical office environment, companies’ perceptions surrounding the cost of accommodations do not align with reality. Nearly 60% of accommodations for people with disabilities actually cost nothing, and the remaining accommodations typically cost only $500 per employee, according to a study by the Department of Labor’s Job Accommodation Network. Additionally, many of these costs no longer exist in a virtual work environment. Simply put, there are no excuses for failing to hire people with disabilities.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced changes in the lives of everyone in the country. But despite all the suffering it has caused, the novel coronavirus has proven that companies can quickly and efficiently make accommodations to traditional work practices, as we have seen by the swift shift to work from home policies. Now is the time for employers to realize that people with disabilities are the greatest untapped workforce in this country and adapt to get people with disabilities to work.