Only 35.3 percent of New Mexico’s 157,900 working age people with disabilities are employed. This lack of opportunity creates poverty, powerlessness and can even increase the risk of developing mental health conditions.
Fully one in five Americans has a disability. A recent survey sponsored by the Kessler Foundation confirms that the majority of them are striving for work.
While persistent stigmas remain an obstacle, the evidence shows that people with disabilities can be highly successful workers. For example, Virgin Airways founder Sir Richard Branson and finance wizard Charles Schwab are dyslexic. Scientist Stephen Hawking, like Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas and President Franklin D. Roosevelt before them, are wheelchair users.
Today, in New Mexico, 9,900 youths with disabilities between the ages of 16 and 20 are preparing to enter the labor market. They have high expectations and deserve the same opportunities to achieve the American dream as anyone else. Young people with disabilities may simply need some thoughtful help to transition into the workforce.
People who are blind, deaf or non-verbal frequently use assistive technology. Similarly, people with intellectual disabilities can benefit greatly from internship opportunities and job coaches. Wal-Mart, like Ameren Corporation, AT&T, Booze Allen Hamilton and other companies, has seen that people with disabilities can be extremely loyal and capable workers.
While there are few Stephen Hawkings – with or without disabilities – people with disabilities can work in restaurants, tend our parks, assist aging seniors and be super talents in developing computer software.
The U.S. Business Leadership Network, a network of companies that focus on building their bottom line through diverse talent, can be a real resource to the private sector.
Federal contractors are also vital because of new regulations requiring that they be inclusive employers of people with disabilities. This new Section 503 rule creates a 7 percent hiring goal for people with disabilities in all job categories.
Vocational rehabilitation programs in New Mexico helped 718 people with disabilities find work in 2012, the most recent year where the data is public.
Improving the quality of life for people with disabilities is an issue that is important to Gov. Susana Martinez. For years, she has cared for her older sister who has a developmental disability. However, the state can do much more in the future.
Under the new Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act, Martinez can break down the waste and silos between the branches of government so that education, transportation, workforce development, health care and other departments work together to create a strategy to enable people with barriers to work can obtain jobs and careers.
One of their first steps can be to expand programs that are proven to succeed. Public-private-philanthropic partnerships, along with programs such as Project SEARCH and Bridges to Work, can bring breakthroughs and success that will be win-win-win for people with disabilities, employers and taxpayers alike.
Twenty-five years after the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed is long enough to wait. New Mexico citizens with disabilities should be seen for their abilities.
While a safety net must stay for people with serious health situations, it’s time for New Mexico to have an “employment first” strategy for people with disabilities so they have the opportunity to have the dignity, friendships, income and purpose that jobs and careers provide.
RespectAbilityUSA.org is a nonprofit working to enable people with disabilities to achieve the American dream.