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Minnesotans with disabilities must be part of workforce equity movement

Date Published: 10/12/2015

Author: George Shardlow

On September 30, 2014, the White House issued a Presidential proclamation that designated October as “Disability Employment Awareness Month.” This year, we celebrate both the second annual observation of that month and the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA was landmark civil rights legislation for Americans with disabilities, ensuring basic legal protections in employment and establishing legal requirements for accessibility in the built environment.

However, a quarter century after the passage of the bill, the landscape does not look as we hoped it might. According to a recent report by RespectAbility, a disability advocacy organization, the national unemployment rate for Americans with disabilities is 70 percent. Shockingly, this actually represents a 20% increase in the unemployment rate of Americans with disabilities, since the passage of the ADA. To our credit, the report ranks Minnesota as the 5th best state in the nation for addressing unemployment in the disability community.

That ranking can be attributed to recent policy successes. In July of last year, President Obama signed the Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act (WIOA). The Act compelled states to develop plans for improving access to employment in integrated settings and Minnesota quickly responded. Governor Dayton issued Executive Order 14-14, setting the goal of raising the proportion of state workers who self-identify as disabled from 4% to 7%. Additionally, the state adopted the Employment First policy, which orders state agencies to develop individualized employment plans for Minnesotans with disabilities. The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development also provides both jobseekers and employers resources for promoting inclusive hiring.

That said, local leadership on this issue is by no means limited to government action. The Minnesota Business Leadership Network has done great work to cultivate a culture of inclusion, driven by dialogue between businesses. As RespectAbility notes, 3M in particular has been a leader in employing Minnesotans with disabilities.

However, despite the accolades, even here in the land of 10,000 lakes there is a great deal of work to be done. While the state, as mentioned, ranks fifth in the nation for employing people with disabilities, the report ranks Minnesota tenth for limiting the disparity between workers with and without disabilities. The employment rate for Minnesotans with disabilities is 46%, compared to 83% for those without disabilities.

In a sense, this is the same old song for Minnesota. While we have received recognition in recent years for holding down the overall unemployment rate, aggregate data belie the stark disparities that persist. In order to achieve true prosperity, Minnesota’s public and private sectors need to persist in tackling unemployment among marginalized groups.

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George Shardlow serves as Economic Development Intern for Growth & Justice. He holds a Master’s in Public Policy from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and has worked extensively in the disability policy arena.

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