I’m delighted to contribute this first “guest blog” for the Office of Disability Employment Policy’s LEAD Center. This new blog series will serve as a forum to discuss how our country’s public policies can best improve employment outcomes for youth and adults with disabilities. Advancing the national dialogue about disability and employment is a key goal for the LEAD Center and this blog series will stimulate that conversation. You will hear from, and have the opportunity to respond to, various thought leaders across the fields of disability, employment, workforce development and financial empowerment.
To kick things off, I’d like to share my thoughts about work, at a basic level. Put simply, work is fundamental to identity. It means so much more than a paycheck; it offers purpose and gives us power as consumers and contributors to our communities and society as a whole. As Henry Ford once said, “There is joy in work. There is no happiness except in the realization that we have accomplished something.” I couldn’t agree more.
Like all people, those of us with disabilities want to be respected as competent, self-reliant working members of society—recognized for our inherent worth and value. But, working-age adults with disabilities continue to be disproportionately impacted by unemployment, representing the highest percentage of Americans outside of the labor force and living below the national poverty level. This is unacceptable and contradicts America’s foundational premise of equal opportunity for all. To reverse this inequity we must invest in the potential of youth and adults with disabilities.
Despite the best of intentions, our nation has created a myriad of contradictory policies and programs that often discourage individuals with disabilities from pursuing employment. For people with disabilities seeking to enter or re-enter the workforce, access to benefits and publicly funded support services is often an “all or nothing” proposition—either work and jeopardize eligibility for health care and other critical supports or don’t work at all.
This is an untenable choice for many, and, as a Wall Street Journal article recently highlighted, our nation can clearly no longer afford this model if our economy is to grow. We need to change the paradigm—from one that sustains cyclical dependency to one where public policy encourages work, and at the same time safeguards support services that are also critical to achieving self-sufficiency. We need to break the cycle, and I am confident we can.
Since its inception in 2001, ODEP has invested in a number of demonstration projects that have shown that people with disabilities—including many previously deemed “unemployable”—can work, can be productive citizens, can contribute as taxpayers and can advance economically. These outcomes benefit not only people with disabilities themselves, but also their communities, and ultimately our national economy. They also generate a greater return on the investment of public funds.
The LEAD Center is one of ODEP’s current investments and we’re thrilled with the progress so far. In less than a year, it has initiated numerous technical assistance activities, policy endeavors and research pilot programs to inform and advance the systems-level changes necessary to improve the socioeconomic outlook for America’s youth and adults with disabilities.
A strong national economy requires an inclusive national workforce—one in which every person who wants to work, does work. That’s why disability employment policy reform must be a top federal priority. But tackling this multi-faceted challenge will require a full-scale movement that marshals the resources and commitment of government, industry, labor and individuals.
Through this new blog and many other planned activities, the LEAD Center is helping to bring these voices together, and I hope yours will be among them. I challenge you to be agents for change by engaging in this national dialogue and sharing your creative ideas and strategies. I hope you will be bold, courageous and, above all, innovative.
I look forward to a stimulating conversation!
Kathy Martinez is the Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, which works to influence national policy and promote effective workplace practices that ensure today’s workforce is inclusive of all people, including people with disabilities.