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Harkin Convenes Hearing on Employment Opportunities for People with Disabilities

Harkin Convenes Hearing on Employment Opportunities for People with Disabilities

WASHINGTON – Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, today convened the first in a series of hearings to examine how to improve employment opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities.

Testimony and archived videos will be posted at:


Harkin’s opening statement as prepared for delivery is below:

“The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions will come to order.  The title of this hearing is “Improving Employment Opportunities for People with Intellectual Disabilities.”  We are here today to examine the barriers and, most importantly, identify solutions to increase the employment participation rate for all individuals with disabilities. 

“For this hearing, we focus first on persons with intellectual disabilities because, in many ways, they have faced the most significant barriers and the lowest employment participation rates of any group of individuals with disabilities.  According to some sources, the employment participation rate for persons with intellectual disabilities is as low as 23.9%, and for those receiving Supplemental Security Income the participation rate is as low as 9%.  Persons with intellectual disabilities also may face the most significant of barriers to employment—that of poor attitudes about their abilities and low expectations for their possibilities.  We are here today to identify strategies for increasing employment participation for this important group of citizens.

“Participation in the workforce has many benefits for all of us, beyond the obvious benefit of providing an income.  Employment allows for the creation of social networks.  It creates a community of colleagues and friends.  And competitive, integrated employment helps to create social networks that reach far into the community.  When people with disabilities work they become part of their communities and have the opportunity to contribute to those communities.

“A dear friend of mine, the late Danny Piper, a young man with Down syndrome, worked for years in a hardware store in Iowa -- and, by the way, also for me in my office in Iowa.  His life was richer because of the relationships he had with his fellow employees.  In addition to earning an income that allowed him to live in his own apartment, participate in social activities of his own choosing, and to make decisions about his own life, Danny gained the sense of dignity and purpose that work gives all of us.

“And his colleagues’ lives, too, were richer because of the relationships they had with Danny.  They were able to see the contributions that people with intellectual disabilities can make to a business and to the community.  One young man who worked with Danny said of him that he had “the heart of a lion.”  By working with Danny, that young man’s vision of people with disabilities changed.  It changed from a perception that they are individuals who need help, to a perception that they are individuals who can contribute and provide help to others.  His colleague saw Danny as someone who, yes, has a disability, but also someone who is filled with abilities.

“Having a job has been tied to better health, a longer life, and greater satisfaction with life for people with disabilities.  And, of course, it reduces the likelihood that they will live in poverty.  Currently, over a quarter of people with disabilities live in poverty, and one direct way to raise them out of poverty is to increase the employment participation rate. 

“Employment for persons with disabilities benefits all of society.  Individuals with disabilities who are working, even with services such as supported employment, show a net fiscal gain for society.  An expert in cost-efficiency of workplace supports for persons with disabilities, Robert Cimera, has shown that individuals with disabilities who receive supported employment services have a positive benefit-cost ratio of 1.46. That means that for every dollar we spend on helping people with disabilities to work in an integrated setting, we receive back a $1.46.

“And the net gain society receives is by no means only monetary in nature.  Employees who work with individuals with disabilities, and specifically with individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities, report that they have greater satisfaction with their work.  Employers report that this group is a dedicated, loyal group of employees, that they have a lower rate of turnover, and a lower absentee rate.  There are great benefits to employing persons with disabilities -- for the individual, for the business, and for society at large.

“But we have a huge problem.  The number of individuals with disabilities participating in the workforce is shockingly low.  In January of 2011, the Department of Labor reported that only 31.6% of individuals with disabilities participated in some form of employment.  That is less than half the rate for persons without disabilities.  We need to do much better.  We need to address this problem aggressively and creatively in order to increase the quality of life for the more than 50 million Americans with disabilities, including the almost eight million with intellectual disabilities.  We also need to help provide businesses with a reliable, viable, able workforce that can meet their needs.

“Recognizing the scope and urgency of this challenge, 15 of the most significant organizations working with individuals with developmental disabilities have joined together to form the Alliance for Full Participation.  The Alliance will hold a conference in November focusing on competitive, integrated employment, and will set a goal of doubling the employment participation rate of persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities by 2015. 

“So, this hearing is one of the first steps to address this problem of under-participation in the workforce by persons with disabilities.  I am asking my colleagues to join with me in working toward the great goals of significantly increasing the employment rate, decreasing the poverty rate, and increasing the quality of life of persons with disabilities.  The important work we have done since the landmark passage 35 years ago of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and 20 years ago of the Americans with Disabilities Act, dramatically improved the lives of persons with disabilities. We have addressed education and we have addressed access.  Now we must address employment and economic well being.

“Today’s hearing is designed to help us move forward with strategies to address this problem.  I want to take a moment to thank my colleague and the Ranking Member of the committee, Senator Enzi, for his own commitment and leadership on this important issue.  It is a so important that we address this challenge in a bi-partisan fashion, much like Senator Hatch and I worked together to pass the ADA.  Thank you, Senator Enzi, for your partnership in this important effort.  Much of what we will hear this morning will focus on how to create opportunities for persons with intellectual disabilities in the workforce. 

“Before we move onto our first panel I want to acknowledge two individuals in the audience who have devoted their lives to improving opportunities for  people with intellectual and developmental disabilities:, Tim Shriver and Anthony Shriver.  Would you both stand up and let the audience acknowledge you.  Thank you both for your fabulous work with Special Olympics International and the Best Buddies programs.  You are carrying forward the proud legacy of your uncles and your mother in this important endeavor.

“As you know, I worked for many years with your Uncle Ted and with your mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, on issues related to disabilities.  I know that they would both enthusiastically support the efforts we are making here today.  In fact, your mother once said of people with intellectual disabilities that they had earned – and I quote – “the right to play on any playing field…to study in any school…the right to hold a job.”  Well, she was right.  And I hope through this hearing today that we honor her words and continue to work toward the great goal of increasing the employment participation rate for persons with intellectual disabilities.  By doing so, we will improve the quality of their lives and the quality of life for all citizens. 

“Thank you.  I now invite my colleague and the Ranking Member of the HELP Committee, Senator Enzi, to give his opening statement.”