But it wasn’t until I went to college in the 1970s that I grew up politically and really thought about disability rights. It came after I heard Judith Heumann, a disability rights attorney who contracted polio as a child, gave a speech calling disability a civil rights issue. I had never heard this comparison before. I realized that millions of disabled people were unjustly excluded from everyday life. Ms. Heumann inspired me to become a lawyer myself.
I have committed myself to this cause because of people like Joseph Pabin. He graduated from college with a degree in computer science and a grade point average of 3.5, an impressive resume that easily got him interviewed. But when he showed up, the interviewers noticed his speech impairment and told him they doubted he could successfully interact with clients. Mr. Pabin looked for a full-time job for three years without finding one and his self-esteem fell. Ultimately, he contacted Bender Consulting Services, a career placement company that recruits, screened, and employs people with disabilities for professional positions with private and government employers. Highmark offered him a full-time position in information technology. He has been with the company for four years and works directly with customers.
On the way into the new year, it is important to realize how far we have come. The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed 28 years ago, banning discrimination against people with disabilities. I still remember standing next to my father in the rose garden and watching President George HW Bush sign the law and engrave it on his legacy forever.
But when it comes to employment, a cornerstone of the American dream, we have failed to deliver on the promise of this historic law. Many employers have not yet realized that people with disabilities can make an economic contribution by being sought and housed. Americans with disabilities – a population of 50 million, more than one in five – still face numerous challenges in entering and participating in the workforce.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of June 2018, only 29 percent of Americans aged 16 to 64 years were employed with a disability, compared with nearly 75 percent of Americans without a disability. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities who are actively looking for work is 9.2 percent – more than twice as high as for people without disabilities (4.2 percent).
The US job market is the strongest in decades and possibly ever. But too many people with disabilities are left without work. Accenture analysis shows this inspiring statistic: Hiring just 1 percent of the 10.7 million people with disabilities has the potential to increase GDP by an estimated $ 25 billion.
Once companies are aware of these potential economic benefits, they should be motivated to include people with disabilities in the world of work so they can thrive like never before. Their hiring will also give companies new insights into developing and marketing products and services that meet the needs and preferences of consumers with disabilities – the third largest market segment in the US, according to the Office of Disability Employment Policy. To start with, companies should participate in the Disability Equality Index.
As a New Year’s resolution for the American company, it’s hard to do anything better than make a commitment to employ people with disabilities. Yes, we can do it because it always feels good to do the right thing. However, now it turns out that reaching that next frontier for corporate social responsibility is good business too.
Ted Kennedy Jr., a Connecticut Democratic Senator, is a healthcare attorney and civil rights advocate for people with disabilities and the chairman of the American Association of People With Disabilities.
Follow the “New York Times Opinion” section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion), and Instagram.