By SCOTT ELLIOTT
Last month, the U.S. Department of Labor set aside $21 million under the Disability Employment Initiative to improve education, training and employment opportunities for youths and adults who are unemployed, underemployed or receiving Social Security disability benefits.
The department’s Employment and Training Administration and its Office of Disability Employment Policy jointly fund the initiative. The move was especially well timed.
October, after all, is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, making it an appropriate time for employers to think deeply about how they can get more people with disabilities on the job.
“During these difficult economic times, it is important to ensure that all workers, including those with disabilities — who as a group face employment barriers even during times of prosperity — are able to benefit from the Labor Department’s employment and retraining services,” said Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis.
Employing and retaining people with disabilities, however, comes with challenges.
As a person with a significant disability, 25 years experience in the corporate world and 14 years in the human services field, I bring a range of perspectives to the issue. As executive director of the Progressive Center for Independent Living (PCIL), I have been devising and implementing ways for businesses to overcome those challenges for more than a decade.
At PCIL, a private, not-for-profit, community-based organization that does not charge fees for its core services, one of the ways we try to get people into the workplace is by training employers.
The classroom training aims to: help improve a company’s staff competence and remove the awkwardness of meeting or employing a person with a disability; explain a company’s requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act; and teach companies about incentives to hiring those with disabilities.
In the seminars, trainers with disabilities interact with the audience so participants leave the training confident and comfortable when it comes to communicating with customers and colleagues.
Among the area businesses and agencies to receive training from PCIL are the Trenton Thunder, the Trenton Marriott Hotel, Rider University, the
New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services, Johnson & Johnson, Sam’s Club of Freehold, the College of New Jersey, Grounds for Sculpture, Advancing Opportunities and the Lambertville Fire Co.
PCIL offers a range of services to people with disabilities, including a wealth of information and resources on housing and transportation. In addition, visitors can receive peer support and help picking up the skills they need to live a full, independent life. PCIL also takes an active advocacy role in the community, working with legislators and local officials on issues related to people with disabilities.
But this is a good month to focus on jobs, as the federal government recently acknowledged with its funding announcement.
“Access to high-quality employment and training services is vital to moving youth and adults with disabilities into the workforce and preparing them for good jobs in high-growth, high-demand industries,” said Office of Disability Employment Policy Assistant Secretary Kathy Martinez.
For businesses, there can be rewards beyond a diverse workplace.
People with disabilities represent a very large group of potential customers for the hospitality industry. In fact, people with disabilities spend billions of dollars annually on travel expenses and dining out.
According to the federal government, more than 50 million Americans with disabilities – 18% of the population – are potential customers for businesses of all types across the United States.
It is important to remember that a company that complies fully with ADA regulations will not be just getting new disabled customers; their relatives and friend may come along as well.
And the market is growing fast. By the year 2030, 71.5 million Baby Boomers will be over the age of 65 and demanding products, services, and environments that address their age-related physical changes, according to the federal government.
The federal money announced last month is not the first nod toward the issue.
The Independent Living movement as we know it began in the 1970’s, as people with disabilities asserted their right to full inclusion into the mainstream of American society. A group of people with disabilities, including the late Ed Roberts and Judy Heumann, Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education’s office of Special Education, founded the first Center for Independent Living (CIL) in Berkeley, California.
Through the efforts of independent living advocates, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 included funds for independent living services. Amendments in 1978 added funds for Centers for Independent Living (CIL).
The Progressive Center for Independent Living, founded by individuals with disabilities and family members of people with disabilities, was established in Ewing, New Jersey in 1996.
PCIL dedicated its mission to advocates for the rights of people with disabilities to achieve and maintain independent lifestyles.
This is the month for others to join PCIL in its mission.
Scott Elliott is Executive Director of the Progressive Center for Independent Living in Hamilton, NJ. For more information about PCIL and the programs offered contact PCIL at 609 581-4500 or visit www.pcil.org