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JENNIFER LASZLO MIZRAHI: North Dakotans with disabilities want to work

Fully five out of ten of North Dakota’s 35,000 working age people with disabilities are employed. For those without jobs, this creates poverty, powerlessness, and poor health.

People with disabilities want the opportunity to have the dignity, friendships, income, and purpose that jobs provide. Thankfully, while things still need improvement, North Dakota has one of the highest employment rates for people with disabilities in the nation.

It’s the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), landmark legislation meant to ensure the civil rights of people with disabilities. Since the ADA was passed, architecture and infrastructure have improved. Yet nationally attitudes and opportunities have not. Today there are many onramps to get into buildings, but far fewer to get into jobs.

1-in-5 Americans have a disability. I am one of those people, plus I also know what it means to raise a child with multiple disabilities. Moreover, before the ADA made buildings accessible, I was temporarily a wheelchair user due to a car accident.

Frequently I could not get into buildings because of physical barriers. But people also frequently spoke to me very loudly and slowly – as if I were deaf. Academic studies have confirmed that overall people think that people with disabilities are not competent. One outcome of those stigmas is that many employers deny people with disabilities the chance to work.

The good news is that 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, like Governor Abbott of Texas, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt before them, are wheelchair users.

Today in North Dakota 2,600 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. People with intellectual disabilities can benefit greatly from internships and job coaches. Comcast, Ernst & Young LLC, Lockheed Martin, Sprint and other companies 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 hospitality, tend our parks, assist aging seniors, and be super talents in developing computer software.

Vocational rehabilitation programs in North Dakota helped 700 people with disabilities find work in 2012, the last year when data is public. However, they can even more in the future. Under the new Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, Governor Dalrymple can further bring together the silos between the branches of government so that education, transportation, workforce development, healthcare and other department work together with employers to create strategies to enable people with barriers to work can obtain jobs and careers.

One of their next steps should be to expand 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.