I firmly believe that all people must work — even those with disabilities. Like me. Work brings meaning to life, provides important social connections and allows people to provide economically for themselves and their families.
Yet for too long our society has made it nearly impossible for most disabled people to secure long-term gainful employment. Since my childhood in the 1950s, the United States unemployment rate for people with disabilities has exceeded 70 percent. Laws including the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 resulted in greater accessibility and acceptance for those with disabilities but did little to improve the dismal employment picture.
Our nation’s policies hold very low expectations for individuals with disabilities. Indeed, the government definition of disability as the “inability to work” creates a serious disincentive to finding employment.
I was fortunate to have the values of hard work and independence instilled in my life from an early age. As a child with cerebral palsy, my parents did all they could to foster my self-reliance. My mother woke me each morning and would insist I dress myself, even though it took two hours to do so. At night, I’d get two dinners. One dinner I had to feed myself; the other I was provided assistance to ensure I got enough to eat.
These approaches may sound extreme, and today I know that a key to independent living is knowing when and how to get help. But for my parents work was, quite literally, a life and death matter. As Holocaust survivors, they had seen how those who could not work were considered worthless, and were the first to perish in ghettos and concentration camps. They showed me that determination and perseverance are the key to achievement.
For me the payoffs have been enormous. Despite my obvious disability — I can’t sit upright, I have involuntary movements and my speech impairment is significant — for nearly 30 years I built a career at Wells Fargo, rising to senior vice president of information technology. Work gave me purpose. Work made me proud. Work allowed me to gain economic independence and build a secure financial future.
As a society we need to embrace the view that people with disabilities can be full partners in our nation’s economic growth. Instead of relegating them to disability benefits and safety nets, we must create a system of supports that make work and economic success an achievable dream. It is time to stop saying, “Disabled people can work” and start believing that “All people must work.”
To foster this change in attitude, I helped create the World Institute on Disability’s Center on Economic Growth in 2011. CEG measures success as a level playing field where people with disabilities have the same employment rate, earning power and asset-building opportunities as their non-disabled peers. Now, in collaboration with the National Council on Independent Living, we are asking Congress to pass legislation that would allow us to demonstrate through a five-state pilot program the benefits of a career-oriented approach that could replace the current Supplemental Security Income and Social Security Disability Insurance programs for young adults with disabilities.
Known as The ACCESS Program (Adult Coaching, Counseling, and Employment Support Services), the initiative would eliminate work disincentives, promote employment and encourage participants to be as productive as possible. Instead of a check compensating them for their inability to work, participants would receive a stipend to offset their high cost of disability. Every participant would be expected to develop and follow an Individual Career Plan. All services required to successfully perform their ICP would be coordinated through the Access Program.
Efforts such as the Access Program offer real hope for increasing the employment participation rate of people with disabilities. Particularly at a time when funding for entitlement programs is increasingly tenuous, we need to make every effort to give those with disabilities the opportunity to reach their economic potential and become full participants in the labor market. I have seen the transformative power of work in my own life. Now is the time to ensure that more people with disabilities have that same chance.
Neil Jacobson is an advocate and information technology professional who co-founded the World Institute on Disability’s Center on Economic Growth in 2011. He wrote this for McClatchy-Tribune News Service.