NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: people with disabilities in the workforce.
According to the Pew Research Center, these are numbers from the year 2015: more than one in 10 Americans reported having some kind of disability.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And according to the Brookings Institute, considering those who are in their prime working years: more than half of those with disabilities do not have jobs.
Compare that to the population of non-disabled adults: nearly 80 percent of them do have jobs.
But that trend could be changing.
Here’s WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg.
SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: Sam Malek was born with cerebral palsy. CP is a group of neurological disorders that causes stiff and weak muscles. Malek had to use forearm crutches to get around. But from the time he was young, he never wanted his disability to keep him from working hard.
MALEK: If you go back to my childhood, I cut grass. I used to wash dishes.
After Malek left home and started a family, he began several successful businesses.
MALEK: I started my own lawn service. Then I’ve also got into the computer repair business and then I got into the computer consulting business. I mean, I’ve had a multitude of jobs.
As he worked, Malek says he took pleasure in proving people’s assumptions about his disability wrong.
MALEK: My frustration was in all the jobs that I had, everybody would come to a preset notion then, oh, he can’t handle this. So then when I met and exceeded their expectation, uh, they would, they would be pleasantly surprised.
2018 employment statistics show more Americans with a disability like Malek’s are heading to work. And more employers are starting to see past disabilities.
According to labor statistics analyzed by the Wall Street Journal, the number of American workers getting federal disability benefits peaked at 9 million people in 2014. It’s dropped by half a million since then.
The average monthly jobless rate for disabled people also dropped from 13 percent to 8 percent over the same period.
Nadine Vogel is the founder of Springboard Consulting. The company helps businesses create inclusive workplaces in more than 30 countries.
She says the tight job market has contributed to the uptick in the number of disabled workers entering the U.S. workforce. But Vogel says it’s more than that.
VOGEL: I think businesses are starting to recognize the talent pool of people with disabilities. Companies I think are very much starting to understand that those individuals in many cases offer unique skill sets that perhaps others don’t.
More people with disabilities are also getting college degrees. That helps make them more employable. And government regulations are pushing federal contractors to hire more people with disabilities.
VOGEL: So companies that you know, want to do the right thing and certainly want to be compliant are building better workplace inclusion programs, accommodation processes, doing more to ensure that their websites are accessible to folks who are blind or with a visual impairment or can’t use a mouse or a keyboard in terms of applying for a job online.
Stricter guidelines for approving Social Security disability benefits could also be encouraging more people to look for jobs. In 2016, for the first time in nearly 25 years, administrative judges approved less than half of all disability claims.
But data suggests an increasing number of people with disabilities would rather work than collect a government check. In 2017, more than 50,000 people left disability because they found jobs. That’s up from 35,000 in 2011.
Better technology in the workplace may play a role. Betsy Furler is the founder of For All Abilities, a consulting company specializing in finding technology solutions for disabilities. Furler says technology has made more jobs possible for people with disabilities.
FURLER: The strategic use of something like Google calendar with the ability to set reminders, set recurring appointments, the ability to set alarms. For someone with ADHD or autism or another disability that causes them to have trouble with executive functioning skills, those features are life-changing. Speech to text technology is unbelievably incredible, and it has improved so much over the last five years. Having so much on audio is also tremendous for people with a disability.
As more companies see the value people with disabilities bring to the workplace, they’re starting to recruit them.
Sam Malek has had a front-row seat to that transition. Sixteen years ago, he founded a company that helps prepare other people with disabilities to work.
MALEK: More Than Coffee is a Christian-based business and foundation that is geared to helping people with mental and physical disabilities helping them fulfill a life that they can accomplish something and have a purpose.
People with disabilities volunteer to work at the coffee shop in exchange for learning business skills and customer service. So far, the foundation has trained and connected more than 80 people with jobs.
MALEK: Anywhere from the restaurant business to the hotel business to starting their own website and starting their own product line.
Malek says More Than Coffee’s success proves many people with disabilities want to work, they just need an opportunity.
MALEK: Everybody’s got a God-given talent. The question is can we find it or is someone going to invest time in an individual to find their God-given talents.
Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg.