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‘Employment first’ should be standard

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For people with disabilities, architecture has improved. Yet attitudes and opportunities have not. Most of Hawaii’s working-age people with disabilities are not employed. This creates poverty, powerlessness, and can even increase the likelihood of developing mental health conditions. People with disabilities want jobs and independence, just like anyone else.

Fully one in five Americans have a disability. The recent Kessler Foundation survey shows that most working age people with disabilities are striving to work. While persistent stigmas remain an obstacle, the evidence shows that people with disabilities can be highly successful workers.

For example, Virgin Airways founder Sir Richard Branson and finance wizard Charles Schwab are dyslexic. Scientist Stephen Hawking and Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas are wheelchair users, like President Franklin D. Roosevelt before them.

Today in Hawaii 2,800 youth with disabilities, between the ages of 16 and 20, are preparing to enter the labor market. They have high expectations and deserve the opportunity to achieve the American dream. Young people with disabilities may simply need some thoughtful help to transition into the workforce.

People who are blind, deaf or non-verbal frequently use assistive technology. Similarly, people with intellectual disabilities can benefit greatly from internship opportunities and job coaches. Comcast, Ernst & Young LLC, Lockheed Martin, Sprint and other companies have seen that people with disabilities can be extremely capable and loyal workers.

While there are few Stephen Hawkings — with or without disabilities — people with disabilities can work in restaurants, tend our parks, assist aging seniors, and be super talents in developing computer software or in the hospitality industry.

The US Business Leadership Network, a network of companies that focus on building their bottom line through diverse talent, can be a real resource to the private sector. Federal contractors are also vital because of new regulations requiring that they be inclusive employers of people with disabilities. This new Section 503 rule creates a 7 percent hiring goal for people with disabilities in all job categories.

Vocational rehabilitation programs in Hawaii helped 235 people with disabilities find work in 2012, the last year when data is public. However, they can do much more in the future. Under the new Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act, Gov. David Ige can break down the waste and silos between the branches of government so that education, transportation, workforce development, healthcare and other departments work together with employers to create strategies to enable people with barriers to work can obtain jobs and careers.

One of the next steps should be to stop funding failing programs and instead fund programs that are proven to succeed. Public-private-philanthropic partnerships, along with programs such as Project SEARCH and Bridges to Work, can bring breakthroughs and success that will be win-win-win for people with disabilities, employers and taxpayers alike.

While a safety net is a must for people with serious health situations, it’s time for Hawaii to have an “employment first” strategy for people with disabilities. People with disabilities deserve the opportunity to have the dignity, friendships, income, and purpose that jobs and careers provide.

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