How Senator Harkin Wants to Fix the Disability Jobs Crisis

By: Suzanne Robitaille
July 18, 2012

A Senator from Iowa has a new action plan to get more people with disabilities into jobs. Sen. Tom Harkin, who is known for his longtime advocacy for people with disabilities, told the Huffington Post he plans to use his power in Washington to “make the issue of disability employment a national priority.”

As chair of the Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee, Harkin released a report that lays out the bare (and well-known) facts: People with disabilities participate in the workforce at a rate far lower than any other group, including women, African-Americans and Latinos. Workers with disabilities also left the labor force during the 2008 recession at a rate five times faster than workers without disabilities.

The Senator wants to change the landscape, starting with the public sector, which has promised hiring progress. Regular readers of our blog know the U.S. Department of Labor has called on federal contractors to work toward the goal that at least seven percent of their workforce, at all levels, are people with disabilities. He also wants support for college-age youth transitioning into adulthood.

“To leverage the investments we as a country have made in education of students with disabilities, we need to ensure there is a path from school to the workforce:” He wants to implement transition activities such as internships, part-time jobs, job shadowing, and interviewing and job skill development to help students transition to the workforce.

The private sector is tightly wrapped up in Harkin’s plans. He has joined with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in setting a goal to increase the size of the disability workforce from under five million to six million by 2015. He cites companies that are hiring people with disabilities, including Walgreens, Lowe’s and Best Buy, but recognizes that more skilled job opportunities are needed.

A bright spot: Demand for skilled workers is on the rise as Baby Boomers leave the workplace and as employee shortages in high-growth areas like healthcare, manufacturing and information technology will require more workers. This presents an opportunity for people with disabilities, and Harkin wants to encourage students with disabilities to pursue post-secondary career and technical programs in these fields.

For entrepreneurs and small business owners with disabilities, he also wants to see more opportunities for their businesses to compete effectively for contracts with government entities and private sector companies — similar to how other minority- and women-owned companies do today.

Reform for federal benefits is another one of Harkin’s champion causes. The current income-support systems (like Social Security Income) keep people with disabilities impoverished. Federal income that ranges from $500 to $1,000 a month is “generally insufficient to alleviate poverty,” he writes.

What’s more, is the public system also discourages people with disabilities from entering or returning to the workplace because they’ll risks permanently losing important supports, including health coverage, if they earn more than a certain amount each month. “I believe that we need to modernize our largest federal programs so that they do not require people to prove they cannot work [or earn an income],” he writes.

To that end, Harkins wants to create incentives for states to design and test more modern approaches with the ultimate goal of implementing systems change at the federal level. Some states are leading the way already. Wisconsin and Utah, for example, have seen strong results in the overall employment participation for working age people with disabilities.

The Senator’s vision is a tall order for a country that has struggled with how best to boost disability employment in the last two decades, but he believes progress can be made in 2012 and beyond. Harkin is competent and up for the challenge, and there’s no better person in Washington to take on the disability employment crisis and help the public and private sectors “think beyond the label” to bring about real change and innovation.

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