The Americans with Disabilities Act turns 30 this year, and with the anniversary come fresh attacks from the Trump administration that would make it harder for some with disabilities to receive benefits. It seems politicians are paying attention. They recognize that those with disabilities number more than 14 million nationally, a voting bloc roughly the same size as blocs of Latino or black voters.
As a 51-year-old man living with Parkinson’s disease, I think about the chance that disability will be a part of my future. As of 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more than 61 million American adults, or 1 in 4, live with at least one type of disability, and some live with multiple types.
We need better comprehensive policies supporting the needs of those with disabilities. A just society requires it. At the same time, we need more persons with disabilities in the workforce, including federal jobs.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren recently unveiled a comprehensive plan aimed at helping persons with disabilities. It calls for changes that include raising the threshold at which those receiving federal disability benefits qualify, and tying benefits to rates of inflation. Her plan would further eliminate the marriage penalty, which requires giving up disability benefits or having them greatly reduced when one chooses to marry. The Warren plan has merits, and voters should consider it in light of the Trump administration’s plan that would make getting and retaining disability benefits more arduous and complicated.
But what can get lost in these conversations is just how much persons with disabilities can contribute to a workplace. Too often, we view those with disabilities through a lens of deficits as opposed to strengths, which correlates with misassumptions about what they can and cannot do. A result is that persons with disabilities experience two times the rate of unemployment as those without disabilities. Those who are disabled are also twice as likely to live in poverty.
Studies have shown that persons with disabilities who are able to work contribute a lot, especially when employers provide reasonable accommodations required by law. Although some employers raise concerns about added costs, in many cases accommodations cost less than $500.
This is money well spent. We know businesses hiring people with disabilities outperform businesses that do not. One study showed that disability-friendly businesses had 28% higher revenues, their net incomes were twice as much as other businesses, and their profit margins were 30% higher. Moreover, the U.S. Department of Labor found that disability-friendly employers had a 90% increase in employee retention.
Persons with disabilities contribute distinct insights, perspectives and wisdom born of resilience, discipline and typically a strong work ethic. Because persons with disabilities must constantly adapt to their surroundings, they also bring creativity, agility, persistence, openness, forethought and capacity for solving problems.
More of us need to see those who live with disabilities through lenses of strength. We can speak out against discrimination and exclusion, and hold those who violate the law accountable, but we can also do more. Employers can help by making the smart decision to hire workers with disabilities while establishing inclusive and accessible processes related to recruitment, application, interviews and onboarding, as well as performance review and promotion. Lawmakers can reward employers with legislation that provides tax relief for businesses hiring persons with disabilities. Doing so is good business and good governance.
Those who live with disabilities, or who might in the future, have important political decisions to make. We must support candidates who value what those with disabilities need and what we offer. Imagine the benefits we will see 30 years from now in the workforce, among persons who live with disabilities, and with respect to the common good.
Allan Hugh Cole Jr. is a professor and senior associate dean for academic affairs in the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin.