Who holds elected officials accountable when it comes to employment?

The following article was written by by John D. Kemp, President and CEO of the Viscardi Center.  Published in the Hill: 01/14/20 

John D. Kemp, President & CEO
John D. Kemp

“I just want a J-O-B, but no one seems to want to hire me because I’m disabled and assumes I am useless:),” read a recent Twitter post by a graduate from the Henry Viscardi School at The Viscardi Center, a graduate who holds not only a high school Regents diploma, but a Bachelor’s degree; a graduate who presents with a severe physical disability and medical fragility, and who has been dismissed within minutes of arriving at many job interviews.

The common thread: approximately two-thirds cannot find employment. Those who have landed jobs know the road to securing employment is long, tedious, and filled with mostly arbitrary, unnecessary obstacles.

Further, some are limited by earnings caps due to the fear of losing critically needed benefits. Where education has succeeded, employment has failed them quite miserably.

There is frustration, loss of self-worth, hopelessness, anger, and despair. Disability discrimination in employment is and has occurred all too often toward these smart, talented graduates.

It’s not only our graduates who are suffering, so are the tens of thousands of highly qualified yet unemployed Americans with disabilities. According to the CDC, fully 1 in 4 Americans, or 61 million people, have limitations.

Do policymakers think we’re utterly incapable of succeeding in competitive employment? That we can’t contribute equally or better to their profitability and competitiveness while bolstering our economic self-sufficiency and contributing to the local and national economies? How simply inaccurate is that!? 

I often speak about the power of work, which provides dignity, purpose, social relations, and an earned paycheck. Work should be attainable by all who are qualified to perform it, and ‘work’ is more broadly defined today than ever.

In an environment where the upcoming elections are the topic of many conversations and covered by the media daily, one has to ask: Who holds elected officials accountable for ensuring every one of their constituents has the opportunity to work?

On the first Friday of every month, the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics releases the Employment Situation Summary, otherwise known as the Employment or Jobs Report.

Once again, the latest Jobs Report did not include good news for people with disabilities. The labor force participation rate (the percentage of the population working or actively looking for work) for those 16 years and older with disabilities was 20.5 percent, while it was 68.7 percent for working-age people without disabilities.

The unemployment rate for those of us with disabilities has consistently been nearly double that of those without disabilities. Since the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed almost 30 years ago, there’s been only a one percent gain in competitive employment by people with disabilities.

What the unemployment statistics are missing is the job seeker who has been looking unsuccessfully for employment more than 11 consecutive months, so long he or she has become discouraged and drops out of the labor force. If counted, I shudder at what the true unemployment figures for us with disabilities would look like.

Talented, skilled, qualified job seekers with disabilities, only a few of whom may not be able to conform to a traditional workday or may require accommodations, should still have an opportunity to be employed, lead a purposeful life and live the American dream — which includes economic freedom.

With the presidential election less than a year away, we should be paying careful attention to candidates’ disability agendas, particularly their approach to addressing the lack of employment opportunities.

Elizabeth Warren’s platform includes free vocational training for disabled workers. Bernie Sanders seeks to combine significant Social Security expansions with a job guarantee for any disabled person who wants to work.

In October, the Center for American Progress posted, “10 Disability Policy Questions Every Presidential Candidate Should Answer,” which touched upon subminimum wages. We, as well as other protected classes, should be pressing every candidate in every election for viable action plans to tackle crises affecting their groups.

I ask, where’s the public outrage?  Who’s holding elected officials responsible for solving this chronic problem experienced by millions like our graduates, and older Americans naturally aging into disability like us Boomers, and every person with a disability in between?

It’s time to act, time to hire, time to adopt new policies that will drive disability employment forward, and quickly.


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John D. Kemp is the president and CEO of The Viscardi Center and Henry Viscardi School. He is also a 2019-2020 Encore Public Voices fellow.

I am a member of the board of directors for the Viscardi School.


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