October 2017 marks the 72nd National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), and the Iowa Department on Aging is pleased to take this opportunity to celebrate the contributions and diversity that all persons with disabilities bring to the workforce.
The beginning of NDEAM dates back to 1945, when Congress enacted a law declaring the first week of October "National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week." In 1962, the word "physically" was dropped to include all persons with disabilities, and the week-long event was expanded to a month-long public awareness effort in 1988, with October officially being recognized National Disability Employment Awareness Month.
While gains have been made in employment for persons with disabilities since the mid-20th Century, they still lag behind those without disabilities. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the participation rate in the workforce for individuals without disabilities is 68.8 percent, while persons with disabilities account for just 20.5 percent. Similarly, the unemployment rate for Americans without disabilities is 4.4 percent, while it nearly doubles to 8.4 percent for those with disabilities. This is not because people with disabilities do not want to work; rather, the biggest barrier to employment is lack of understanding by potential employers of the capabilities of persons with disabilities.
Today, Iowans with disabilities are employed as teachers, plumbers, lawyers, dishwashers, doctors, college professors, bankers and customer service representatives. The accommodations that are used to perform these jobs are as varied as the individuals themselves, and while a business may be hesitant to hire a person with a disability due to the expense of accommodation, the Job Accommodation Network says most accommodations cost nothing and tax incentives are available to businesses that do incur expenses.
As the labor market tightens, employers would do well to seek out persons with disabilities to round out the labor force. In Iowa, there are many organizations available to make sure businesses have access to qualified applicants, including Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services, the Iowa Department for the Blind, Iowa Workforce Development, the Iowa Department on Aging and the Area Agencies on Aging.