On the 50th anniversary of the Rehabilitation Act, there’s still work to be done to increase disability employment

The Biden administration marked National Disability Awareness Month (NDEAM) with a nod to history, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This landmark legislation represents a pivotal moment in American history, as it was the first federal law to address issues of access and equity for individuals with disabilities.

In his address, the President rightly acknowledged the importance of both the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) while recognizing that more work must be done to ensure greater opportunities for Americans with disabilities.

Remarkably, even when national unemployment rates hover around 3.5%, individuals with disabilities still find themselves disproportionately underrepresented in the workforce. In 2022, a mere 21.3% of disabled individuals were gainfully employed. This stark disparity demands immediate attention and concerted efforts to rectify.

As President Biden pointed out, the federal government has an outsized role in solving this challenge. In his remarks, he acknowledged, “as the nation’s largest employer, the federal government has a responsibility to set the standard for fair and decent practices in the workplace.”

Policies and programs like the Americans with Disabilities Act, the AbilityOne Program, and the Rehabilitation Act have been crucial steps to providing access and equity for Americans with disabilities. However, they must be strengthened and leveraged more effectively together to achieve their goals fully.

This is why we formed the Alliance for Expanding America’s Workforce, a nonprofit dedicated to modernizing and expanding the federal government’s procurement process, direct hiring practices, and policies to generate greater opportunities for people with disabilities.

These efforts need to go beyond a legal requirement to hire people with disabilities. There should be recognition for disability-owned businesses under the Small Business Administration.

Strengthening programs like the AbilityOne Program and other levers of federal procurement will provide economic stability for the people they employ and contribute to stronger communities and an overall reduction in government spending.

recent study by Virginia Tech of an AbilityOne federal contractor found that disabled employees contribute $12,073 per person to gross regional product. Additionally, the financial and physical self-sufficiency that people with disabilities experience while employed reduces government spending by $38,354 per person. This reduction is due to less reliance on Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Medicaid, SNAP and other government assistance benefits.

To achieve the access and equity in employment for disabled people envisioned by the Rehabilitation Act 50 years ago, we’ll need to build on its successes and strengthen other levers of federal procurement and direct hiring. Only then can truly equitable and inclusive employment for people with disabilities become a reality.

We must work together as employers, advocates, employees and the greater disability community to modernize disability employment policy and programs to better reach and go beyond workplace inclusion goals.

Dwight Davis is president of the Alliance for Expanding America’s Workforce and the president of Global Connections to Employment. 

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