Contributions of Americans with Disabilities to the U.S. Workforce
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Currently, Americans with disabilities make up 21.6 percent of the U.S. workforce, yet the unemployment rate among this population is about 5 percent higher than the overall unemployment rate. To address this concern, National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) is an opportunity to educate the American public about this disparity, as well as provide resources related to the employment of people with disabilities. The NDEAM observance began in 1945 when Congress designated the first week in October as “National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week.” In 1962, the word "physically" was removed to acknowledge the employment needs and contributions of individuals with all types of disabilities. And in 1988, Congress expanded the week to a month and changed the name to National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM).
Expanding upon the spirit of NDEAM, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law in 1990 to prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, state and local government, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunications. In addition, the federal government has identified targeted disabilities for special consideration in hiring, including genetic conditions as well as those that develop over time or arise from an accident or other traumatic event.
Among the early advocates for full inclusion of people with disabilities were Helen Keller (who was blind and deaf) and Justin W. Dart, Jr. (who used a wheelchair because of poliomyelitis (polio) complications). Both are recent inductees in the Hall of Fame at the Department of Labor. To ensure the passage of the ADA, Dart worked with a wide coalition of advocates such as Senator Bob Dole (disabled through injuries in World War II), Senator Tom Harkin (whose brother is deaf), and Congressman Tony Coehlo (who has epilepsy).
Today, Americans with disabilities are making significant contributions to the U.S. workforce. As National Disability Employment Awareness Month comes to an end, below is a list of some of the disability community’s contributions to our nation’s labor force, as well as some information and resources for further learning:
Throughout the history of our country, notable leaders such as Benjamin Franklin (who had dyslexia), President Theodore Roosevelt (who had epilepsy), and President John F. Kennedy (who had asthma) have served our nation. Perhaps the most recognized public servant with a disability was President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who contracted polio as a young adult.
In Congress, Senator Paul Wellstone and Congresswoman Barbara Jordan (both whom had multiple sclerosis), represented their constituents. In addition, several members of Congress who are also war veterans with disabilities have continued to be active in the U.S. workforce, including Senator Daniel K. Inouye (World War II veteran), and Senators Robert Kerrey and Max Cleland (Vietnam War veterans).
In the mid-1990s, Judy Heumann (a person with polio) served as Assistant Secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services at the Department of Education. She has become an internationally recognized leader in the disability community, a lifelong civil rights advocate, and co-founder of several organizations focused on independent living. Heumann became the first person in a wheelchair to teach in New York City and has also worked at the World Bank and Department of State, where she currently serves as Special Advisor for International Disability Rights.
Shortly after becoming the first female Attorney General, Janet Reno was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. She later became the second-longest serving Attorney General after William Wirt.
Within the Department of Labor, Kathleen Martinez, who has been blind since birth, is the third person to serve as the Assistant Secretary for the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP). Martinez is an internationally recognized disability rights leader specializing in employment, asset building, independent living, international development, diversity and gender issues.
Science and Medicine:
In 1876, the renowned inventor and engineer Alexander Graham Bell revolutionized the world of communications with the introduction of the telephone. Bell was largely influenced by his father’s work on elocution, speech and the system of deaf instruction. His mother and wife were both deaf, while Bell himself had dyslexia. However, his scientific curiosity led him to contribute to the inventions of optical telecommunications, metal detectors, and aeronautics. He also served as a founding member of the National Geographic Society.
Also an inventor, Thomas Alva Edison is most famous for developing the incandescent light bulb, phonograph, and the motion picture camera, but is lesser known as a person who was hard of hearing. When Edison was 14, he contracted scarlet fever causing a complete hearing loss in his left ear, and an 80 percent hearing loss in the other. During his adult life, he was a telegrapher, repairman, inventor, founder of Edison General Electric Company, and the holder of hundreds of patents.
In the early 20th century, Jacob Bolotin, MD became the first man who was congenitally blind to receive a medical license. He was known for his expertise on diseases of the heart and lungs. In his many public appearances, he advocated for the full inclusion of people who are blind in education, employment, and all other aspects of society.
In 1994, noted mathematician and professor John F. Nash, Jr. received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his work in game theory, differential geometry, and partial differential equations. Nash is an individual with paranoid schizophrenia. His biography is the basis for the Hollywood movie A Beautiful Mind.
In the world of entertainment, there are many celebrities with a wide range of disabilities. Academy award-winning actress Marlee B. Matlin (who is deaf) is well recognized for her talent and advocacy on behalf of the deaf community. Currently, Matlin holds the record for being the youngest winner in the Best Actress Oscar category for the movie Children of a Lesser God.
Famous people with epilepsy include musician Neil Young, actor Danny Glover, as well as authors Truman Capote and Edgar Allen Poe. Recently, Parkinson’s disease has been widely publicized as actor Michael J. Fox and boxer Muhammad Ali have joined forces to raise awareness about the disease in hopes of finding a cure.
According to the National Institutes Institute of Health approximately 15 percent of Americans are affected by learning disabilities. Several famous entertainers who have learning disabilities include entrepreneur Walt Disney, actress and host Whoopi Goldberg, actor and producer Edward James Olmos, and activist Erin Brockovich.
Celebrities who have disclosed that they have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) are television game show host Howie Mandel, actor Leonardo DiCaprio, Academy Award-winning actors Charlize Theron and Billy Bob Thornton, and actor Alec Baldwin.
In her recent biography, novelist, screenwriter and actress Carrie F. Fisher documented her lifelong struggle with bi-polar disorder. Most famous for her portrayal of Princess Leia in the original Star Wars trilogy, she is now an outspoken advocate and speaker for people with mental illness.
In the world of sports, Robert Patrick "Rocky" Bleier stands out as the epitome of tenacity. After his rookie year in the National Football League (NFL), Bleier served in the Vietnam War. After his tour of duty, he underwent rehabilitation for a partially-missing foot until he was able to return to the NFL, where he contributed to the Pittsburgh Steelers winning four Super Bowls. Other leaders on the football field include NFL quarterbacks Jay Cutler (who has Type 1 Diabetes) and David Garrard (who has Crohns disease).
These are just a few of the contributions that people with disabilities have made to the U.S. labor force. For additional information about disability and employment issues, see the resources below:
• Office of Disability Employment Policy (www.dol.gov/odep)
• Disability.gov (www.disability.gov)
• Job Accommodation Network (www.askJAN.org)
• Employer Assistance and Referral Network (www.earnworks.com)
• America’s Heroes at Work (www.americasheroesatwork.gov)
• Disability Social History Project (www.disabilityhistory.org)
• Extraordinary People with Disabilities by Deborah Kent
• Crippled Justice: The History of Modern Disability Policy in the Workplace by Ruth O'Brien
• No Pity by Joseph P. Shapiro