Its time to end the mass exclusion of 15% of the global population with a disability. This mass exclusion can not be left to Governments and charities alone, it needs the most powerful force on the planet, business leadership. CEOs make choices and choices create cultures.
Former Iowa Senator Tom Harkin is only too familiar with this, having been instrumental in the implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which celebrated its 30th birthday earlier this year. Most recently he worked with President elect Joe Biden to help draft the incoming administrations disability policy statement.
Additionally, in pursuit of the policy issues which he has dedicated his career to, including those relating to disability inclusion, Senator Harkin established the Harkin Institute for Public Policy & Citizen Engagement, a non-partisan institute.
Is he happy with the progress that has been made over the past three decades since this major ADA legislation came into effect?
“Yes, but in a measured way. There were four goals of the Americans with Disabilities Act: full participation, equal opportunity, independent living and economic self-sufficiency. The last one referring to employment and jobs.
“The first three we’ve done pretty well on. We’ve seen physical barriers go down all over our country, places are more accessible, whether they are theatres or sports stadiums, restaurants or businesses. Education has also opened up opportunities too.
“But the one place where we really haven’t made much progress, and this dampens my happiness a little bit, is unemployment. The rate of unemployment for adults with disabilities is just about today where it was 30 years ago. And if you’re talking about the future, to me, that’s what we really need to focus on. We’ve come a long way on independence and participation. The final frontier is competitive, integrated employment for persons with disabilities.”
It’s not just the unemployment rate for people with disabilities, rights and equality for employed persons with disabilities also needs critical attention. The law explicitly enables employers to pay workers with disabilities less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 – a result of a section within the Fair Labor Standards Act dating back to 1938.
So, while there has been some progress over the past three decades, what are we not getting right, and what should we be doing differently to really make the critical change needed?
“A number of factors. On the side of the businesses, a lack of suitable outreach by human resources plays a key role. They have a sort of cookie-cutter type approach in terms of finding people, to see if you fit into a certain mould – and their approach has not been one conducive to reaching out to the disability community and getting them to apply for these jobs.
“There’s also some fear I think amongst employers that if they hire people with disabilities that it comes with all these rules and regulations they need to follow, which if they mess up they’re going to end up in court and going to be sued. A lot of this is misinformation and lack of understanding.”
Harkin does think that the future work regime, of working from home, catalysed by the Covid-19 pandemic, brings with it the potential of opening up all kinds of possibilities for persons with disabilities – but to be successful in this respect, the new regime will require changes or modifications in the law.
“For example, the ADA requires reasonable accommodations. For a person with a disability to work from home, they are going to need high speed internet. So who pays for that, who puts that in as a reasonable accommodation? To me, this is either part government and part business, or it could be all business.”
There is also a clear business case for companies to be employing persons with disabilities, another aspect which Harkin is incredibly passionate about highlighting. Persons with disabilities contribute great value when it comes to their productivity, and diversity of lived experience and thought to their employers – bringing a competitive advantage to their businesses.
“We have a lot of data to show that persons with disabilities, again given reasonable adjustments and support, are more productive than people without disabilities. Accenture did a long-term study over five years, and they took companies that employ persons with disabilities, and those that don’t.. And guess what? The companies that employed persons with disabilities had better profits and better bottom line income than the ones that didn’t.
Again, I think we’ve seen some data in the past of companies that maybe had one product line that they were doing, and by hiring persons with disabilities, they get a better insight.”
So, what does Harkin think needs to be done from a business leadership perspective, to ensure inclusion of persons with disabilities becomes fully embedded within the business supply chain? He highlights in particular the role that they can play in the education system, teaching inclusion and inclusivity from early childhood.
“I think businesses in the private sector need to reach out to their local communities. All the people that work for them, they all go to different schools, and could be a lightning rod, be a promoter in our schools of teaching this kind of inclusivity, in our education system.”
America stands at a point in history as we look ahead to Biden’s incoming presidency – and Harkin is hopeful that the new administration could represent a turning point for America as an inclusive society.
“I think he has the ability to bring us together. I believe with this administration we can begin to change some of things, like Medicaid, that will enable more people to go to work, that we will have better investments in developing workforces among persons with disabilities in America, to make sure that we do a much better job of bringing businesses together to discuss and promote this idea of full inclusion. And in doing this let’s set a goal to double the rate of employment of those with a disability over the next ten years. Finally, I believe we can join the rest of the world in signing up to the Convention of Rights of Persons with Disabilities.”
By: Caroline Casey