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Alaskans with disabilities want jobs and independence

This July we celebrate both Independence Day and the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, only half of Alaska's working age people with disabilities are in the workforce. While this is significantly better than the national average of 30 percent, even more can be done.

Fully 1 in 5 Americans have a disability and the recent Kessler Foundation survey shows they want to work. While persistent stigmas remain an obstacle, evidence shows that people with disabilities can be highly successful. For example, Virgin Airways founder Sir Richard Branson and finance wizard Charles Schwab are dyslexic. Scientist Stephen Hawking, like Gov. Abbott of Texas, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt before them, are wheelchair users. Author Christopher Nolan had cerebral palsy. He wrote using a special computer and his work has been compared to that of Joyce, Keats and Yeats.

Today in Alaska 3,300 youth with disabilities, between the ages of 16 and 20, are preparing to enter the labor pool. They have high expectations and deserve the same opportunities to achieve the American dream as anyone else. Young people with disabilities may simply need some thoughtful help to transition into the workforce.

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

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 they be inclusive employers of people with disabilities. This new Section 503 rule creates a 7 percent hiring goal for people with disabilities be in all job categories.

Vocational rehabilitation programs in Alaska helped 500 people with disabilities find work in 2012. However, they can do even more in the future. Under the new Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act, Gov. Bill Walker can break down the waste between branches of government so education, transportation, workforce development, health care and other departments work together with employers to create strategies that enable people with barriers to work to obtain jobs and careers.

One of their first steps for Alaska should be to fund programs proven to succeed. Public-private, philanthropic partnerships, along with programs such as Project SEARCH and Bridges to Work, can bring breakthroughs and success.

As someone with a disability who knows what it means to raise a child with multiple disabilities, I know the dignity, friendships, income and purpose that jobs provide. Starting way above the national average, Alaska can still raise expectations even higher, build its successes, and create win-win solutions for people with disabilities, employers and taxpayers alike.

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is the president of RespectAbilityUSA.org, a nonprofit organization working to enable people with disabilities to achieve the American dream.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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