Trees fall every day. In 2010, a tree fell and paralyzed me. I now use a wheelchair. This has not stopped me from working full-time or living my life fully. Alaska is not a very accessible place. With that said, it is a younger state and many facilities in major communities were built or remodeled since the Americans with Disabilities Act’s enactment and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. I now work as a land use planner for the state of Alaska and my workspace is set up for a barrier-free workflow. We need more success stories like mine among the approximately 20% of Alaskans with disabilities who are primed to work.
October marks the annual celebration of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). This month is a chance to celebrate job seekers with disabilities who are striving to work and employers who are recruiting talented employees with disabilities. The theme for NDEAM 2019 is “The Right Talent, Right Now.” Indeed, employment matters for people with disabilities for more than financial reasons. Employment matters because people with disabilities are seeking the opportunity to achieve independence, just like anyone else.
The great state of Alaska has good reason to celebrate NDEAM this year. The Last Frontier, in fact, outperforms many other states in terms of jobs for the one in five Americans living with a disclosed disability. In a recent study, 23,815 Alaskans with disabilities had jobs, putting the state’s disability employment at 44.9%. A recent ranking by RespectAbility, a nonpartisan disability inclusion organization, found that Alaska ranks 12th out of the 50 states in terms of disability employment. While that’s pretty good, we can do better!
Alaska needs to fully implement an Employment First strategy, in which critical social programs for youths and adults with disabilities are oriented toward ensuring that securing a job is the top priority for individuals with disabilities. That goal is reinforced with high expectations among teachers, coaches and parents around that individual.
Companies that embrace employees with disabilities see the results in their bottom line. According to Accenture, disability-inclusive companies have higher productivity levels and lower staff turnover rates, are twice as likely to outperform their peers in shareholder returns and create larger returns on investment.
The fact is that disability is part of the human experience. It is nothing to fear because most of us will be affected by it eventually, whether by accident, aging or illness. Opening more job opportunities to people with disabilities will mean stronger communities and a better economy for all. Achieving that requires all of us here in Alaska, working together, because people with disabilities are the right talent, right now.
Ira Edwards grew up in Palmer and now lives in Anchorage. He works for the state of Alaska.
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