"AbilityOne provides employment opportunities to more than 40,000 people, making it America's largest source of employment for people who are blind or have severe disabilities."
Despite federal anti-discrimination laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act, it's still difficult for people with disabilities to find work. In fact, 62 percent of adult Americans with disabilities are unemployed, according to a recent report by Cornell University.
In September, Congress passed legislation significantly strengthening employment protections for people with disabilities, in keeping with the intent of the ADA, enacted in 1990. Passage of the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 resulted from two years of landmark cooperation between business groups and disability rights organizations.
Yet federal protections and the cooperation of corporate America are only a step in the right direction toward ensuring meaningful employment for people with disabilities. "People with disabilities are not keeping pace in this economy and are much more likely to live in poverty," says Andrew Houtenville, an author and researcher affiliated with Cornell.
Securing employment is even more difficult for people who are blind or have severe disabilities. Fortunately, the AbilityOne Program has demonstrated that people with disabilities can successfully perform in the workplace while also becoming self-supporting, involved citizens.
AbilityOne provides employment opportunities to more than 40,000 people, making it America's largest source of employment for people who are blind or have severe disabilities. AbilityOne is administered by an independent federal agency called The Committee for Purchase from People Who are Blind or Severely Disabled. National Industries for the Blind (NIB) and NISH - Creating Employment Opportunities for People with Severe Disabilities are the two national nonprofit agencies that facilitate the AbilityOne Program and support a network of more than 1,300 nonprofit agencies and federal government customers that participate in the program across the country.
"The high quality work and job dedication of people with disabilities comes through every day," says Bob Chamberlin, president and chief executive officer of NISH. "I think the public should know, for example, that people with severe disabilities perform fleet management and document destruction services as well as manufacture uniforms and essential equipment for our nation's armed forces. AbilityOne employees perform vitally important work. This is productive work. This isn't charity."
Through AbilityOne participating nonprofits, people receive a support system, job skills and training in addition to wages and benefits. For many, employment through the program promotes greater independence and an opportunity to live and work in the community. In many cases, the skills they learn through the AbilityOne Program allow them to maximize their employment potential.
The origins of AbilityOne can be traced to the Wagner-O'Day Act of 1938, signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. AbilityOne has a decades-long track record of proving that people with severe disabilities can get the job done. Yet, nearly 20 years after the passage of the ADA, unemployment rates remain stubbornly high and virtually unchanged.
While a few companies, such as Walgreens, Safeway, Ernst & Young LLP and others have made extraordinary efforts to create employment opportunities for people with disabilities, they remain the exception, not the rule.
The federal government has struggled in its efforts to be a model employer of people with disabilities. The Department of Defense, the General Services Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, the National Parks Service and dozens of other federal agencies participate in the AbilityOne Program. But a January 2008 study from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that the participation rate for people with disabilities in permanent federal jobs is at its lowest point in 20 years, dropping from a high of 1.24 percent in 1994 to less than 0.94 percent in 2006.
"The federal government must hire more people with disabilities to meet its obligation as a model employer - we should show employers by example why it makes good sense to hire and promote people with disabilities," says Sen. Richard Durbin, (D-Ill.), in Government Executive Magazine.
"Employment is the key to economic security and personal independence for all Americans, especially Americans with disabilities," says Andrew D. Houghton, chairman of The Committee for Purchase From People Who Are Blind or Severely Disabled. "Through employment, this group of Americans - 54 million strong - will not only enhance their sense of well-being, but will also be able to enjoy a reduced dependence on government support and join the ranks of taxpayers."
To learn more about the AbilityOne Program, visit www.abilityone.org
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