Post from Acting Chair Victoria A. Lipnic - October 2018
"America's Workforce: Empowering All" is the official theme for this year's National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM).
If that strikes a resonant vibration in our hearts here at the EEOC, it's because that could be our slogan for everything we do. We've always believed in empowering all Americans to build and improve their lives.
This commemoration had its origin in 1945, when Congress declared the first week in October each year "National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week." In 1962, the word "physically" was dropped to acknowledge individuals with all types of disabilities. In 1988, Congress expanded the week to a month and changed the name to NDEAM. Later the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) assumed responsibility for NDEAM.
Nomenclature and sensibilities have changed over the years, but not the core mission and motivation behind this commendable observance.
The EEOC has backed that mission for years, namely through enforcement of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In fiscal year 2017 alone, we handled almost 27,000 disability charges in the private sector under the ADA, amounting to 31.9% of total charges - that number has been trending upward for 20 years.
And we've put our muscle where our heart is. The agency's ADA suit filings have risen from 36% of our litigation in FY 2014 to 42% in FY 2018, and for several years our ADA litigation has ranked second among statutes we enforce, behind only Title VII.
We know our work is making a difference, but we also know there's more to do. In terms of overall employment, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that in 2009, the first year for which it recorded annual statistics for disability employment, only 19.9 percent of non-institutionalized people with disabilities were employed. Since then that number has fluctuated between 17 and 19 percent, and for 2017 it was 18.7. That's compared to an employment rate of 65.7 percent for people without a disability in 2017. On the other side of the ledger, BLS reports that the unemployment rate for people with a disability is currently 7.3 percent, more than twice that of those without a disability (3.4 percent). People with severe, "targeted" disabilities, of course, face even greater employment challenges.
What all this tells us is that we have to work harder, with steely determination to ensure employment opportunity for these Americans. And, it all comes back to a core principle that we can never stop reminding people of: When you overlook, underestimate, and, yes, harm people with disabilities, you're disrespecting and harming America and its values.
So, this National Disability Employment Awareness Month, I urge each of you to celebrate the contributions of employees with disabilities, and to draw upon this year's NDEAM theme, "America's Workforce: Empowering All," for inspiration in the important work that you do.