Let’s try to increase access during National Disability Employment Awareness Month

We’re in the midst of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and such awareness is needed now more than ever in this brutal economy.

Though many persons with disabilities are qualified and want to work, we are unable to join the workplace. Nearly 70 percent of us are unemployed or underemployed, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

There are many reasons for our exclusion from the work force. Key among them are prejudicial attitudes toward people with disabilities and the lack of accessibility in our society — from a lack of wheelchair ramps to inaccessible transportation.

More than 20 years after Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, disability-based discrimination still exists. Often, employers fear that installing wheelchair ramps, providing assistive technology (such as voice-activated software that can “read” text to visually impaired employees like me) or making other accommodations will prove too costly.

Yet, according to a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Job Accommodation Network, 56 percent of accommodations had no cost, while the rest typically cost only $500. Far from hurting the workplace the study found, such accommodations can decrease workers’ compensation costs, help maintain workers and increase productivity.

Nearly one in five Americans has some type of disability, according to the U.S. Census. Wounded Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans are eager to work. So is your neighbor who has a disability.

We’re not asking for special treatment. We just want to bring our skills to the workplace.

“I urge all Americans to embrace the talents and skills that individuals with disabilities bring to our workplaces,” President Obama said in his National Disability Employment Awareness Month proclamation. And he promised “to promote the right of equal employment opportunity for all people.”

I applaud these inspiring words.

But let’s move beyond oratory.

Let’s give people with disabilities who are able and willing to work a real shot at getting a job.

Kathi Wolfe is a writer and poet. She is a contributor to the anthology “Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability.” She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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