Sunday, September 05, 1999

Disabled workers part of report

Inequities exist, but progress made

Enquirer contributor

        Since 1882, Labor Day has been a national holiday, recognizing the American worker. In her annual Labor Day address Thursday in New York, U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexis M. Herman declared that working Americans have much to celebrate on the last Labor Day of the century.

        “America is working,” Ms. Herman said, pointing out that unemployment is at an all-time low, productivity is rising, and inflation is in check.

        Trends and challenges of the labor force for the 21st century are examined in an executive summary titled “Futurework,” also released Thursday. While more working-age Americans are employed, the report indicates, there is still a class system where women are paid less than men and working-age people with disabilities have been neglected.

        “Women are now one in every two workers,” Ms. Herman said. Yet, white women earn about 75 cents for every dollar earned by white men, while African-American women and Hispanic women earn 65 cents and 55 cents, respectively.

        The greatest untapped pool of workers continues to be working-age Americans with disabilities, and perhaps the best news for that group is that they are being considered as part of the whole picture in this report.

        While the unemployment rate is at an all-time low, only one in four working-age Americans with disabilities has a job. Only 10 percent of all working-age Americans with disabilities have graduated from college, and the percentage of adults with disabilities who have not finished high school is twice that of their non-disabled peers.

        “We know that people with disabilities who work full-time earn only 80 percent as much, on average, as full-time workers without disabilities,” Ms. Herman said. “They have lower wages because they lack skills and education for better paying jobs, and because of discrimination.... In 1995, 30 percent of working-age people with disabilities had incomes below poverty level, which is three times the poverty rate of working-age Americans without disabilities.”

        Still, the tone of the report was upbeat, even for people with disabilities. The creation of a presidential task force to examine employment issues of adults with disabilities in March 1998 was the first of its kind.

        Projects advancing employment opportunities of people with disabili ties have been funded and serve as models for others. Included in the Clinton budget for 2000 is $35 million for assistive technology to bring people with disabilities to work, as well as a $1,000 tax credit for work-related disability accommodations.

        The 21st century will see an increase in high-skilled jobs. Jobs that require a college degrees are growing twice as fast as others, with the 20 highest-paying occupations all requiring a college education.

        While trends can be daunting, Ms. Herman's message is one of hope. Our 21st-century option, she says, is to accept the challenge in creating an “e-society — a society of excellence, education, expanded opportunity, and economic justice.”

        While all those E's might look far away from the vantage point of someone with a disability who doesn't have a job, anyone might celebrate a smaller piece of the picture. As Becky Ogle, executive director for the Presidential Task Force on Employment of Adults with Disabilities, puts it: “This is the first Labor Day report that has taken the time to include any kind of meaningful reference to people with disabilities as workers. That in and of itself is history.”

        Deborah Kendrick is a nationally recognized advocate for people with disabilities. Write her at Cincinnati Enquirer, Tempo, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202.