Over the summer, the Center for the Independence of the Disabled, New York (CIDNY) published a sobering report, titled ADA 25: Many Bridges to Cross, assessing the quality of life for New Yorkers with disabilities across eight “indicators of well-being” 25 years after passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
While acknowledging the landmark law’s success in radically increasing the opportunities and visibility of people with disabilities in American life, the 61-page report nevertheless notes that major disparities in well-being between people with disabilities and the general public persist.
“Segregation and exclusion of people with disabilities have contributed to gross inequalities,” the authors write. “People with disabilities experience lower educational attainment, lower levels of employment and wages, greater social isolation, worse health outcomes and greater levels of poverty than their non-disabled counterparts. These outcomes are not an inevitable result of disabilities, they are the result of legal and social barriers that have yet to be removed.”
Employment is an ongoing civil rights issue for people with disabilities and with Labor Day approaching, there is no better time to examine the CIDNY report and recommendations on employment for NYC residents with disabilities.
The Scope of the Problem
It’s no accident that the ADA’s first (of five) titles prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in the workplace. In a preamble to its employment provisions, the ADA states that “the Nation’s proper goals regarding individuals with disabilities are to assure equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for such individuals.” Yet, perhaps no indicator of quality of life has been as intractable to progress among people with disabilities as employment.
When the ADA’s Title I was written, people with disabilities were already deeply in the unemployment hole compared to their non-disabled counterparts. The once dominant “medical model” of disability, which prevailed until the 1970s when the more capabilities-sensitive social model began to supersede it, tended to color the general view of people with disabilities as unemployable or fit only for special “rehabilitative” forms of labor performed in segregated workspaces.
The ADA was designed in part to challenge employers’ attitudinal and structural barriers by requiring them to make “reasonable accommodations” that would put qualified workers with disabilities on equal footing with other applicants and workers. After all, without a means of income, people with disabilities cannot enjoy the full range of goods, services, and other opportunities the marketplace has to offer and that other parts of the ADA were designed to include them in.
But how well has it performed for willing workers with disabilities in its first 25 years?
New York Story
In New York City, the CIDNY report points out, the work situation for people with disabilities remains grim.
- Among those without disabilities in the city, the employment rate is 70.3 percent; among those with disabilities, only 29.1 percent are employed—a gap of 41.2 percentage points. This is slightly higher than the national gap of 40.2 percent.
- Brooklyn and Queens are the only two boroughs where the gap is under the national average (39.6 and 37.8 percent respectively); Manhattan has the largest gap at 43.6 percent.
- The most frequently held positions for non-disabled individuals include such skilled professions as teacher, manager, accountant, and auditor. Among those with disabilities, the greatest number had low-skill positions, including driver, maid, janitor and building cleaner.
- In addition, people with disabilities are significantly more likely to work part-time or part of the year. “These differences have an impact on household income and poverty rates,” the report notes.
- Employment rates and gaps for people with disabilities vary by gender from borough to borough. In Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn, larger percentages of women with disabilities are employed than their male counterparts (e.g., 31.6 percent vs. 28 percent in Manhattan). Queens and Staten Island had larger percentages of men with disabilities working (32.8 percent vs. 36 percent in Queens). But women with disabilities had lower paying jobs than men with disabilities in all boroughs.
- Employment rates also varied widely from borough to borough for people with disabilities of different races and ethnicities. “People with disabilities who are Black and Hispanic appear to bear a higher burden of discrimination than people with disabilities who are White,” the CIDNY report states.
- Rates also vary according to the number and kinds of disabilities a person has. “Employment rates for people who have a hearing disability is lower in New York City (40.8%) than at the State level (48.1%) or the national level (49.7%),” the report states. “For people who have a cognitive disability in New York City, employment rates are also the lowest at 17.2 percent compared to 21.4 percent for New York State and 23.1 percent in the U.S.”
The CIDNY report argues that addressing these employment (and by implication, income) gaps between those with disabilities and their non-disabled counterparts will require a multi-pronged attack involving shifts in resource allocation and policy focus, along with educating employers, government officials and people with disabilities about their roles in effecting this necessary change. “Government can use economic development and purchasing power to achieve better employment outcomes,” the report argues, adding, “It must raise the minimum wage.”
Some of the specific recommendations include the following:
- Community-based organizations for people with disabilities need to collaborate with employers to educate them about ADA requirements, such as the meaning of “reasonable accommodations” and efficient ways to remove job barriers that relate to disabilities.
- “People with disabilities are still often ignorant of their civil rights in employment settings,” the report says. Employment programs, therefore, need to emphasize “know your rights” education.
- City and State utilization goals for employment of people with disabilities should mirror the federal utilization goal of seven percent
- “Benefits advisement must become a routine part of vocational rehabilitation,” the report states, “because so many working people with disabilities are living in poverty and are more likely to remain dependent on safety-net programs while working.”
- Raising the minimum wage would ensure that entry-level workers with disabilities have a greater likelihood of earning a living wage.
- Jobs and job training programs need to be developed that can help employees with disabilities grow in their jobs; such “career ladders” for people with disabilities could provide paths out perpetual poverty.
- Similarly, the report recommends creation of higher education and career paths for people with disabilities and/or “learn and earn” programs to reduce employment disparities between people with and without disabilities.
To read the full CIDNY report, including its recommendations on employment and other indicators of well-being, go to https://bit.ly/2qcdtuL.