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The Transformative Power of Work and Inclusion: Reflections on the Americans with Disabilities Act

One of the benefits of being in the disability field for such a long time is the perspective that it brings. I started in the field before the implementation of most of the public laws, legislation and legal actions that ensure the rights of children and adults with disabilities (e.g., the right to a free appropriate public education (P.L. 94-142); affirmative action and nondiscrimination in employment by federal agencies, federal contractor and subcontracts (P.L. 93-122); etc.). I have also seen the rise of the independent living and self-advocacy movements, through which youth and adults found their voice, insisted on “nothing about us without us” and created the impetus for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

For the past 10 years, my work has been heavily focused on promoting employment and economic advancement for people with disabilities, both in my role as Project Director for LEAD Center and my work with the District of Columbia’s Department on Disability Services. I’ve seen firsthand the transformation of youth in Project SEARCH programs, who went from being less-than-mature high school students to being young, motivated, well-dressed, respectful professionals shaped by their environments and the high expectations of the people around them – all within the first few days of their new work experiences. I have witnessed the same transformation numerous times, when people are given the opportunity to belong in and contribute to their workplaces.

Seeing people in settings that do not expect much of them is a poor predictor of what people can accomplish and contribute when given the chance. We all need to keep creating opportunities so that youth and adults with disabilities can become our coworkers, adding their creativity and talent to improve workplace outcomes and productivity.

How? The simplest and most effective thing we can do is to bring people into our own networks and connect people with disabilities to people you know. Most people get jobs through their connections. Helping youth and adults with disabilities broaden their connections can yield big results. So can setting the bar high for what people can accomplish.

During my early days in the field, people with disabilities were often separated from people without disabilities. Today, people with disabilities are present and fully participating everywhere – in preschools, schools, the workforce, community organizations, faith communities, decision-making boards, in Congress, etc., and in leadership and member roles. Thanks to the ADA and subsequent court decisions like Olmstead, opportunities should abound. However, attitudinal barriers and low expectations limit opportunities for many, especially people with significant disabilities. The number of people with disabilities who want to work is more than double the number of people actually in the workforce.

As President George H.W. Bush said on July 26, 1990, when he signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, “Together we must remove the physical barriers we have created and the social barriers that we have accepted, for ours will never be a prosperous nation until all people within it prosper.” In the past 27 years, we have not seen that prosperity. As noted on the Disable Poverty website, adults with disabilities are twice as likely to live in poverty when compared to adults without disabilities.

We each have a role to play in reducing the number of people who are unemployed and living in poverty. We can start by setting high expectations and by opening doors for people with disabilities into our networks and our workplaces.

Photo of Rebecca Salon, Project Director, LEAD


About the Author:

Rebecca Salon is the Project Director for the National Center on Leadership for Employment and Advancement of People with Disabilities (LEAD) Center. Rebecca is a recognized national leader in policy and program development with an emphasis on cutting edge demonstrations that promote employment and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with significant disabilities. She has over 20 years of experience with management of federally funded projects and has over thirty-five years experience working with people across the spectrum of disability. Rebecca also works at the District of Columbia Department on Disability Services (DDS), where she is the lead for DC's Employment First program initiatives, focused on creating opportunities for employment, community inclusion, and economic self-sufficiency for youth and adults in the District of Columbia. Prior to her work in DC Government, Rebecca was executive director of the Lieutenant Joseph P. Kennedy Institute. She earned her doctorate degree in Special Education with studies and research geared toward Disability Policy Studies. Her master’s and doctorate are from Syracuse University.

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