Change—and What Is Possible for People With Disabilities?

This article was first published by DiversityInc on their website in October 2010 as well as in their magazine in November 2010.

Part 1 of 2 posts:
I broke my neck body surfing on New Year’s Eve while vacationing in Puerto Rico. The year was 1980, nearly 30 years ago. After a nine-month recovery at the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation in New York, I began my life anew as a C5-C6 quadriplegic using a powered wheelchair.

In 1983, the company I was working for at the time of my accident, IBM, asked me to come back to work in a wheelchair. I was relocated to White Plains, N.Y., from 205 East 42nd Street in Manhattan, which was down the street from the United Nations building and across the street from the “Daily News.”

I married the love of my life, Maggie, in 1988. Since then, we have raised two children, both now living in Boston: our daughter, who is now an attorney, and our son, who is finishing up college at Northeastern University.
In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law. During the 20 years since the ADA was enacted, I have seen positive steps taken on many levels when it comes to changing attitudes regarding people with disabilities.

The ADA put the spotlight on a severely underrepresented group in our nation. Because of the ADA, people with disabilities are a group with a voice; we are now a legitimate constituency that has come of age. The disability community is a constituency that votes, that works, and that pays taxes. Human beings, who were once invisible, are now visible and can no longer be ignored.

The second prominent change I’ve seen in the last 20 years centers around the attitude of the American people and how our nation now perceives leaders. For example, the glass ceiling was symbolically and continually broken when women began to take on numerous leadership roles previously held by men.
You know these women as well as I do. In politics, regardless of political orientation, they include Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, holding powerful jobs previously held by men.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention another change in attitude we were all witness to: the historic election of our first Black president, Barack Obama. This attitude change in America bodes well for people with disabilities as we, as a community, aspire to similar leadership positions.

A New World
The third change I’d like to mention has to do with technology. For the first time in history, everything is connected—businesses, workflows and transactions.

There are 1.2 billion people, millions of businesses and perhaps a trillion devices connected to the World Wide Web today. By 2011, it is estimated that the Internet will reach two billion people—nearly one-third of the world’s population.

Given the proliferation of technology, it shouldn’t be surprising that 70 percent of the computer chips produced today do not go into “computers.” They go into cars and planes, appliances, roadways, shipping containers, pacemakers, emergency rooms and every product with a radio-frequency identification tag … all “intelligent” and all connected.

With this technology revolution emerges a key point: Technology is the great equalizer for people with disabilities and will continue to play a major role in enabling people with disabilities to reach their full potential.

Between now and 2015, as the baby boomers retire, America will need between 10 and 15 million new workers. Add to that the demand for skills we see around the world and it becomes clear that businesses cannot afford to exclude any one constituency group from the talent pool.

This is especially true when it comes to people with disabilities, a large and under-utilized workforce that is employed at dramatically lower rates than the population of people with no disabilities, both in the United States and around the world. In August 2010, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the unemployment rate of people with disabilities was 14.5 percent, higher than the rate for those with no disability, which was 9 percent.

Looked at another way, the employment-population ratio—the proportion of the population that is employed—was 19 percent for people with disabilities. Among those with no disability, the ratio was much higher: 64 percent.

The U.S. Census Bureau has previously reported that 51 million people, or 18 percent of the population, have some form of disability. Globally, the World Health Organization reports that between 750 million and 1 billion people have a disability. In addition, this constituency group controls $1 trillion in aggregate income and more than $220 billion in disposable income annually.

This data suggests that we should be able to leverage more of this under-utilized talent than we do today, if for no other reason than because it is good business—and people with disabilities are both customers and part of our talent base.



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