In the last blog I talked about how years of efforts to get people with developmental disabilities out of the shadows and into schools and communities are paying off. That progress is notable in the changing ways people with developmental disabilities are portrayed in the news and in the popular culture.

Last week, over the holiday, I continued to catch up with the news and came across a flurry of articles about positive employment signs for people with disabilities. I hope this is more evidence that substantial efforts to beef up the numbers of people with disabilities who have jobs are beginning to take hold. It has been one of the most intractable issues this community has faced.

Disability Scoop reports that U.S. Department of Labor data shows that there are more people with disabilities employed now than at any time since the department began keeping track in 2009.

Even though more data is needed to establish solid trends, it is good news. The numbers seem to be moving in the right direction, even in this job-soft market. And it is equally significant that DOL is now regularly assessing employment info for workers with disabilities.

In the past 10 years advocacy groups like the councils on developmental disabilities and the centers for excellence, as well as think tanks like the Heldrich Center, have put employment for people with developmental disabilities front and center. Big employers like Walgreens and Lowes have initiated aggressive hiring of people with disabilities in their warehouses and shipping centers. And, as with other signals, workers with disabilities are becoming more and more common throughout the workforce.

Collaborative efforts have resulted in better matches between jobs and workers. That has promoted a broader understanding of the assets people with developments and other disabilities bring to those jobs. This has enhanced the employers’ understanding of what individual employees can bring to the organization and the employees’ understanding, in conjunction with those working with them, of what needs organizations have to consider to remain successful.

The progress cited is still modest and preliminary. But the signs I see are similar to the ones that hit me week before last about the more inclusive ways people with disabilities are covered in the news and portrayed in the popular culture.

As we’ve all been harping on lo’ these many years the barriers to people with developmental disabilities reaching their full potential are more in the eyes of the beholders than in the talents of the individual. I think at last some key elements of society are beginning to see it than that way too.

There’s still a firm current of resistance and stereotyping though and so efforts of the positive momentum is as important as ever. And this community has some hard questions to answer as well.

For instance, the Scoop reporst that the Washington Times is going after the Justice Department for expanding its efforst to hire more people with disabilities.

If their criticism was because of budget or big brother issues that would be one thing. But the Times seems to be attacking DOJ for opening up job possibilities to those who are clearly unqualified.

I don’t know what planet its editorial staff has been on lately but, as pointed out in a rebuttal to the editorial in the Scoop article, ever since the Nixon Administration efforts to expand job opportunities for “qualified” workers with disabilities has been a bipartisan priority. As it should be.

Also, an argument has broken out over the practice of subminimum wages for some workers with disabilities. The article I flagged is about the practice, in place since the 1930’s, of allowing employers to pay some workers with disabilities less than the federal minimum wage.

The feds are considering stopping the practice under pressure from people with disabilities and other advocates. Those critics contend it is a policy that takes advantage of workers with disabilities and sets them apart from workers without disabilities. Employers, such as Goodwill, and some other disability advocates defend the practice as a valid jobs program for certain workers, opening up job opportunities they might not otherwise have.

No one wants to limit job opportunities for people with disabilities. They are already grossly unemployed and in dire need of more, not less employment opportunity. But the practice is yet another example of segregation of people with disabilities. Setting them apart from their fellow workers.

We need to find a better way. We need to build on the momentum we are beginning to see throughout society of casual, natural acceptance of people with disabilities as neighbors, fellow students, friends, foes, persons of interest or disinterest as the case may be, and equal members of a diverse and vibrant workforce.

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Disability in Focus