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Harkin Statement at HELP Committee Hearing “Lessons from the Field: Learning from What Works for Employment for Persons with Disabilities”

*As Prepared for Delivery*

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions will come to order.  The title of this hearing is “Lessons from the Field:  Learning from What Works for Employment for Persons with Disabilities.”  The purpose of today’s bipartisan hearing is to learn from a diverse group of witnesses about proven strategies that have a positive impact on employment outcomes for all people with disabilities, including young adults and veterans.

Later this month, we will mark the 21st anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), landmark bipartisan legislation that has played a huge role in making our country more accessible, in raising the expectations of people with disabilities and their families about what they can hope to achieve at work and in life, and inspiring the world to view disability issues through a human rights frame and not simply through a medical or charity model.  The ADA stands for the proposition that disability is a natural part of the human experience that in no way should limit a person’s right to participate fully in all aspects of society, including employment.

Thanks to the ADA, our built environment and our transportation and telecommunications infrastructures are dramatically more welcoming of Americans with disabilities and visitors with disabilities from around the world.  Yet, notwithstanding the many improvements brought by the ADA, the sad reality is that people with disabilities still experience discrimination and encounter low expectations as they engage in society.  As we enter the third decade since the ADA’s passage, I believe one of the critical challenges we still need to tackle is the persistently low employment rates among Americans with disabilities.

In 2008, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) began collecting monthly statistics that help us track the workforce participation of Americans with disabilities at the same time that we track and report on other workers.  As of June of 2011, less than a third of working-age people with disabilities were participating in the labor force.  Out of about 15.3 million Americans with disabilities between the ages of 16 and 64, only about 4 million were working in the month of June and about another million were actively looking for work.

The disability labor force, which includes people with disabilities who are either working or actively looking for a job, is a little over 5 million people.  Last April, at a disability employment summit hosted by the US Chamber of Commerce and the US Business Leadership Network, I challenged the employer representatives in the room to work to increase the size of the disability labor force to 6 million by 2015.  Later that week, in a piece he wrote for The Examiner, Tom Donohue from the Chamber endorsed this goal and encouraged his colleagues to meet or exceed the 6 million number because “it’s a good thing to do, and it’s good for business.”

If we are going to get serious about growing the size of the disability work force, we need to start by recognizing that people with disabilities have been disproportionately impacted by the bad economy.  Compared to the general workforce, in the last two years, adults with disabilities have left the labor force at a rate 6 times the rate of adults without disabilities.

Today’s hearing creates an opportunity for us to have a discussion about how to turn that trend around.  What are some effective strategies for increasing employment outcomes for people with disabilities, including young adults and veterans, and how can we learn from these strategies and grow them to scale?  At a hearing in March, we learned about Walgreens’ public commitment that at least 20 percent of the workers in their distribution centers will be workers with disabilities.  As Governor Ridge notes in his written testimony for today’s hearing, a number of companies have been inspired by Walgreens’ example and have begun their own targeted hiring programs.  This is the kind of leadership that will help us increase the size of the disability workforce to 6 million and beyond.

But employment is not just about labor statistics and corporate goals.  Work helps all of us—including people with disabilities--create structure and meaning in our lives, and provides real opportunities to be full participants in our society and to access the American dream.  I often think of my brother Frank, who inspired much of my work on disability issues.  Like a lot of people with disabilities in his generation, Frank experienced a combination of discrimination and low expectations connected to his deafness and it took some time for him to find a job that suited him.  I remember when he finally found a job to his liking.  He got a job at a manufacturing plant in Des Moines – a good job at Delavan Corporation.  It was a great job. He became a drill press operator making nozzles for jet engines.  He took enormous pride in his work.  Frank worked at that plant for 23 years and missed just 3 days of work, and that was because of a blizzard.  He was a loyal employee who did not take his job for granted.

We will hear today from successful people with disabilities like my friend Kathy Martinez, the Assistant Secretary for the Office of Disability Employment Policy at the Department of Labor; Governor Tom Ridge, a champion for disability employment in the public and private sectors; Deborah Dagit, Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer at Merck; and a young woman with a disability who is at the beginning of what I’m sure will be a successful career, Amelia Wallrich.  Our goal is to ensure that all individuals with disabilities have similar opportunities for careers that meet their goals, interests, and high expectations.  This hearing is one of a series that I plan to hold to address the issue of increasing employment outcomes for people with disabilities, and I am asking my Committee 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 people with disabilities. 

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 these important issues. 

Before we move onto our first witness I want to acknowledge the many folks in the room (and the spillover room) who are in town for the National Council on Independent Living’s national conference, including my friend Dawn Francis from the Iowa Statewide Independent Living Council.  NCIL is a great grassroots organization that is making a real impact in improving the quality of life of people with disabilities all over the country, and I appreciate NCIL’s commitment to improving employment outcomes for people with disabilities as part of their work to promote independent living.