Adding to the increased federal emphasis on employment of individuals with disabilities, the Department of Labor recently announced that it was providing $2.1 million in funding to four organizations tasked with building national and local networks of experts skilled in connecting small employers with disabled individuals. This is the second round of funding through the Department's "Add Us In" initiative in an effort to expand job opportunities for persons with disabilities. "Add Us In" was designed to identify and develop strategies to increase employment opportunities within the small business community for disabled individuals. The four recipients – the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois in Chicago, the National Organization on Disability in New York City, TransCen Inc. in Maryland, and Oakland's World Institute of Disability – will work collaboratively to create replicable models and strategies that can be used nationwide by employers to connect with and employ people with disabilities in their communities. The DOL's September 30, 2011 announcement comes on the heels of a similar announcement in late September awarding more than $21 million to seven states to fund its "Disability Employment Initiative," through which DOL hopes to improve education, training, and employment opportunities for disabled individuals who are unemployed, underemployed and/or receiving Social Security disability benefits.
Legal Protections Appear Necessary But Not Sufficient
While these announcements reinforce the current administration's commitment to providing equal employment opportunities to disabled individuals, they also tacitly recognize that the Americans With Disabilities Act ("ADA") and similar legislation has had only limited success in returning persons with disabilities to the workforce. Long-term unemployment and under-employment of these individuals was one of the original drivers of the ADA back in 1989. When Congress was deciding whether to amend the law in 2008, it expressed frustration that those figures had not changed materially. Despite recent amendments to the Act and updated regulations, the number of unemployed disabled individuals remains high. According to the Department's announcement, only 21% of individuals with disabilities participate in the workforce (compared to almost 70% of the non-disabled population), and the unemployment rate for disabled persons is almost twice that for the non-disabled: 16.1% versus 8.8%.
That is not to say the ADA has been ineffective. It has undoubtedly made a difference for millions of Americans, especially since employers now recognize that disability discrimination can trigger significant exposure. Most employers have consequently altered their policies and practices. Today, requests for accommodation are common in many workplaces, and many such requests are routinely granted. Nonetheless, extensive data from reliable sources show that millions of individuals with long-term disabilities remain outside the workforce. The Department's initiative recognizes this, and buttresses hope with targeted – albeit limited – funds.