Here in Washington, we are anxiously experiencing the start of the sequestration of the Federal budget and the significant impact it is likely to have on employment for hundreds of thousands of federal employees, contractors and businesses which depend upon a healthy local economy to remain solvent. Sadly, for adults with disabilities this prospect of reduced employment opportunities is what they experience daily.
Research has shown that unemployment rates among working-age people with disabilities to be disproportionately high compared with unemployment rates among adults without disabilities. In 2005, 38 percent of people with disabilities were employed, compared with 78 percent of people without disabilities (Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Disability Demographics and Statistics, 2005). This difference in employment is already apparent right after high school. The National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (2009) found that 47 percent of young adults with autism, 31 percent with intellectual disabilities and 49 percent with multiple disabilities were presently employed. Keogh, Bernheimer and Guthrie (2004) conducted a 20-year follow up of children with developmental disabilities and found a high rate of un- or under employment, financial dependence on family, and social isolation.
This disparity remains despite the considerable financial commitment of public and private dollars for medical and educational services provided from the time disabilities are first diagnosed. With advances in pre- and peri-natal treatment and biomedical technology infants and children who suffer serious medical conditions and accidents are surviving in record numbers. They often require services and support throughout their lives. Our public educational system is committed to providing an education to all children according to their needs until the age of 21.
Yet, in stark contrast, we are unable to provide gainful employment for these individuals as adults when they have the desire to make meaningful contributions to their communities. Our Jewish values recognize that a person’s dignity is enhanced when one is able to support oneself through one’s own work. Indeed, Psalm 128 says, “You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be happy, and it shall go well with you.” Continued purposeful existence depends on humanity working together.
Thus, our challenge is to remember that people with disabilities wish to work and contribute meaningfully to our communities. When we provide for the most vulnerable among us, we know we are taking care of our entire community. So let us use the impending job cuts to consider the group of people who live with this specter of unemployment all the time, and offer work opportunities to people with disabilities who are eager to be included in the workforce.
Deborah Fisher, Psy.D. is the Chief Operating Officer of the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes, a non-profit community support agency which provides opportunities for independent living for adults with developmental, intellectual, and psychiatric disabilities in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. She received Maryland’s Daily Record’s Innovator of the Year award in 2011 for developing JFGH’s one-year post-educational entitlement transition program, MOST™ (Meaningful Opportunities for Successful Transitions) which facilitates personally directed goals in self-sufficiency, community engagement, and vocational interests in order to achieve full integration into the adult community.