Tony Coelho
President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities
American Rehabilitation Counseling Association and National Career Development Association
March 23, 2000
Washington, DC

As we begin the new Millennium, I think we can look back and be pleased with the progress people with disabilities have made in recent years. People with disabilities now enjoy unprecedented rights, access, and opportunity.

Many of the barriers to employment have been toppled.

A good education is now available to more children with disabilities.

More architects, engineers, and manufacturers have embraced the principle of universal design.

Retail outlets are competing for the disability community's business.

Assistive technology offers people who are blind, deaf, or otherwise disabled the tools to do work that was once impossible for them.

All over America, doors that were once closed to people with disabilities are beginning to open.

Employment, of course, is the key to continued progress and independence for people with disabilities. So I'm happy to say that never in history has the job outlook been brighter.

Thanks as much as anything to the truly unprecedented era of prosperity we have experienced during the past seven years, qualified people with disabilities, along with other Americans, now enjoy better prospects for employment than ever before.

During the last seven years, 19 million new jobs have been created--A rate of growth more than twice that of the previous decade. Some companies that once wouldn't give people with disabilities a second look now romance them and actively recruit them.

Yes, people with disabilities have made progress since the passage of the ADA.

When I was young, I was so desperate for a job that I went into politics! I can laugh about it now, but it wasn't funny back then. When doctors discovered I had epilepsy, I was expelled from the Jesuit Seminary where I was studying to become a priest. The state of California revoked my driver's license, and my insurance company canceled my health coverage.

I felt like a lost soul, rejected everywhere I turned. I became one of the millions of other Americans with disabilities who were unemployed. Here I was -- a young man with an education, a strong work ethic and a desire to succeed. Yet, because of the stigma attached to my disability, every door to the future seemed closed.

Eventually, with the guidance and support of others, I went on to find success in business and politics. Despite this success, I never forgot those times or the hopelessness I felt. Today, I wear the scars of my struggle as badges of honor and pride in who I am: a person with a disability.

Today, with the ADA and changes in societal attitudes, Americans with disabilities have opportunities that previous generations could only dream about. As more and more people with disabilities enter the workforce, thanks in part to the civil rights we gained with the passage of the ADA, supervisors and co-workers are recognizing the valuable contributions that we are making.

Yet, we still have a long way to go.

It will take the considered involvement and work of everyone to solve the unemployment problems facing people with disabilities. Federal, State and Local agencies, Congress, and people with disabilities themselves must get involved. That's why this conference is so critical.

Our legal accomplishments will mean little unless we continue to change attitudes in both the disabled and non-disabled communities, as well as change the underlying goals and assumptions of government programs.

The ADA was only the first, momentous step. In it, Congress laid out the nation's goals regarding individuals with disabilities: equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency.

But now it's time, really it's past time, to design a strategy to make equality of opportunity, full participation, inclusion, and economic self-sufficiency realities.

The frontier we crossed in 1990, outlawing discrimination against people with disabilities, was only the beginning of the paradigm shift. The next vista is changing attitudes and the often well- intended, but fatally flawed, disability programs and policies that keep people with disabilities dependent on government handouts.

There are still too many people in our country who think workers with disabilities can't cut it, who think we are to be pitted and patronized. They couldn't be more wrong, morally or economically. And, the scary truth is that many government programs have been designed and based on these same insulting and patronizing attitudes.

Thankfully, this is beginning to change.

Yet, when we realize that 74 percent of Americans with severe disabilities are still unemployed, it becomes clear that the ADA merely paved the way for inclusion; we still have many steps to take before people with disabilities have full access to the American dream.

Government programs - instead of empowering capable, motivated and skilled people who yearn to be productive citizens - give them money to stay home. And for those who rely upon Medicare or Medicaid, until now, we give them no choice but to stay home.

Eight million individuals with severe disabilities currently receive Supplemental Security Income or Social Security Disability Income, costing the federal government $72 billion annually. With Medicaid and Medicare expenditures factored in, the price tag exceeds $110 billion a year. And the price becomes a truly astounding figure of $300 billion a year when other direct costs of unemployment are considered (such as housing supports, welfare and worker's compensation), and indirect costs of unemployment are factored in (such as lost taxes and productivity).

This country's health care crisis continues to ensnare Americans with disabilities who desperately want to leave the rolls of SSI and SSDI. Unfortunately, for too many people with disabilities, the system has become a trap.

In order to have sufficient economic incentive to leave the federal dole, individuals must be able to earn enough money to rise above the poverty level.

It just does not make sense that the federal government is spending 40 times more money to trap people with disabilities in a life of dependent poverty, that it spends to help them find employment. But that's what it's been doing!

It is encouraging, I think, to note that the government has faced up to the fact that many of its own policies and practices actually hinder the employment of people with disabilities.

Two years ago, President Clinton created the Presidential Task Force on Employment of Adults with Disabilities. Its mandate is to increase employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

The Secretary of Labor is the chair of this task force, and I am proud to serve as co-chair. Simply stated, the function of the task force is to create a coordinated and aggressive national policy on disability employment.

The goal is to bring adults with disabilities into gainful employment at a rate as close as possible to the employment rate of the general adult population. A major focus is to look at what needs to be done to address the unemployment of persons with severe disabilities, particularly the 8 million on the Social Security roles.

The Task Force is looking at four main areas:

How the lack of health care availability creates a disincentive to employment and what to do about it.

What economic incentives are needed to get people off Social Security and onto a payroll.

What can be done about existing barriers to work, such as lack of transportation in rural areas, lack of job-site accommodations, and the need for access to personal assistance services and information technology.

What needs to be done to improve education, job training, and rehabilitation programs to qualify people with disabilities for today's and tomorrow's jobs.

This is no easy assignment. But we are already seeing progress. One of our immediate tasks has been to examine agency policies and to eliminate barriers to employment. Central to the initiative is the idea of making it easier to remain in the Medicaid and Medicare programs even after people with disabilities begin to earn an income. Under this law, states may choose to let workers with disabilities buy Medicaid insurance even if their incomes ordinarily would make them ineligible for the health insurance program for the poor. This goes directly to the main fear and principal deterrent to work: the fear of losing your health insurance.

The second part of this legislation, the Ticket to Work part, gives people with disabilities a choice. A choice in who they want to assist them in reaching their employment goals.

Rehabilitation professionals, I thank you for embracing the Ticket to Work option. I know just by looking at your Web site, that your organization closely followed this legislation and supported it. It's important for you to continue empowering people with disabilities, by encouraging them to make their own employment decisions.

Another legislation issue that the Task Force is following is the Minimum Wage and the Fair Labor Standards Act. For far too long, it has been acceptable to pay people with disabilities for less than minimum wage. I submit to you that it is time, past time, for people with severe disabilities to get paid real money for real jobs. Part of this new disability paradigm must include just wages.

Furthermore, the long-term potential of the new information economy on the job outlook for people with disabilities cannot be understated. Neither can the qualifications that will be required. It has been estimated that 95 percent of all the jobs in the U.S. will require computer and information-processing skills. Pick up any newspaper anywhere in the country and you'll find page after page of want ads for anyone who can program or work a computer.

The rapid development of new technologies in computer hardware, software and telecommunications services is a two-edged sword, however; it threatens not only the security of many workers lacking the necessary skills but the very existence of many of the companies they work for. For some, technology means instant riches. For others, it means instant obsolescence.

For people with disabilities, technology may hold the promise of better paying jobs. Or it could mean further set backs for people with disabilities. We all need to be aware of the potential pitfalls of the digital divide.

In this new workplace, brains, not brawn, are the measure of a worker's value. It's your mind that matters... not how much you can lift or how fast you can load a truck, but how much you know and how fast you can think. Knowledge is power and those that have it can write their own ticket... but if people with disabilities can't access the Internet or the latest technology, they will be back in the Dark Ages.

Technology is good news for qualified people with disabilities. It offers the chance to show how well they can compete and how much they can contribute. If people are smart, willing to learn and willing to work hard, there are jobs for them somewhere, whatever their limitations.

Hard-pressed employers are learning to "Think Ability" and to put first things first.

And as more and more people with disabilities enter the workplace, employers are seeing for themselves and hearing from others how productive they can be. Every time someone proves his or her ability on the job, it makes it that much easier for others to follow. Prejudice crumbles in the face of performance, and one success leads to another.

I want to tell you about some of the innovative projects we have at the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities. Projects that will lead to success for people with disabilities.

Our newest project, Project EARN, will address this problem. Right now, Project EARN is in its development stage. But I want to share the concept behind Project EARN with you. The idea is to give employers a national, toll-free number to call. The people answering the calls will then determine the best local resource for the employer to call, and put the employer in touch with the service provider.

This approach will take the guess work away from the employer. They will only need to make one initial contact. The employers we've talked to are thrilled about the idea of EARN. Based on the comments I hear from employers, I would encourage service providers to continue building relationships with local employers.

At the President's Committee we are building relationships -- or partnerships -- with employers.

Take the Business Leadership Network -- on this initiative we have partnered with the US Chamber of Commerce. Tom Donohue, CEO of the Chamber, also serves as the head of this program. The BLN's, as we refer to them, work to enhance the employment opportunities for people with disabilities. For this project, I can't think of a better partner than the Chamber.

We have active BLN's in 21 States. It might interest you that in several of these states Vocational Rehabilitation Departments work side by side with our business partners.

Another President's Committee undertaking is Project Employ. The Society for Human Resource Managers (SHRM), and their CEO, Michael Losey, partner with us on this effort.

Project Employ is about expanding employment opportunities for people with cognitive disabilities. Project Employ's focus is on abandoning outdated stereotypes and seeking opportunities to educate, train, and place people with cognitive disabilities into a wide range of occupations. Occupations that pay higher than minimum wage, offer benefits, promotion opportunities, and meet the labor needs of business.

On another front, the small business front, we are working with the Presidential Task Force, SBA, and others to provide people with disabilities the tools they need to start their own businesses. Beginning in April, a team will travel to communities throughout the country, connecting people with disabilities to the local resources they need to start a business.

Hard-pressed people with disabilities are learning to "Think Ability" and to put first things first.

In the new knowledge-based economy we can expect things to get still better for those who are smart enough, ambitious enough, and determined enough to succeed. People with disabilities who develop their skills will have the same chance as anyone else to get ahead.

The credit for that goes to all of you in this room for helping us to breach the barriers and begin to end discrimination.

The four task force goals must become the goals of our nation's other laws and programs related to the employment of people with disabilities. Adopting these goals will require a profound philosophical shift -- from the presumption that people with disabilities are either incapable or less capable of work -- to a presumption that all individuals, even people with severe disabilities, are capable of work.

People with disabilities have the right to work, a right to contribute to the economy, and a right to contribute to the political process. We also have a responsibility to do so.

Changing the attitudinal barriers that form the core of structural barriers to employment won't be easy. But we have a responsibility to ourselves and to our nation to do so. We can't afford to continue wasting millions of lives and billions of dollars each year.

We need to continue to reach out and show employers how practices and policies to attract, hire, retain, and advance people with disabilities can improve the bottom line. That's what counts in the final analysis.

We should expect businesspeople and entrepreneurs to base their decisions not on sentiment but on what's good for their companies. The biggest word in the vocabulary of every CEO I know is "results," and that's as it should be.

Our job is to get the word out that hiring workers with disabilities is a good investment that will pay off in productivity and profitability. It's a message we need to broadcast to small business as well as big business and to rural al well as metropolitan areas.

I particularly like the phrase "Think Ability," which is the theme of our educational program. We need to shift the focus from disability and get business leaders to "Think Ability." To consider the potential of people with disabilities instead of their limitations.

But nobody said it would be easy. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, too many top managers and CEO's still worry about the cost of accommodation. Others are deterred by myths, misinformation or stereotypes.

They need to know that 90 percent of first-time employers of workers with disabilities are so pleased with their performance that they look for more. They need to know that 87 percent of CEO's and top managers who have hired people with disabilities said they would encourage others to do so.

We need to make it easy for employers to "Think Ability." We need to encourage people with disabilities to develop the skills needed to succeed in the workplace. We need to assist employers in finding qualified people with disabilities. And we need to continue partnering with others to make this happen.

Thank You.