Thursday, November 5, 2015

Disability Awareness Month

Without much fanfare, another October passed us by. It is a busy time of year for me, with the OJCC Annual Report due each November, but each of you has similar deadlines and challenges with briefs, trials, and more. But October is an important month. 

We have days and weeks and months to celebrate and recognize any number of things, conditions, causes, groups, etc. For example, today happens to be national doughnut day. That is one I am not likely to forget or ignore. But October is an important month.

I get a fair amount of unsolicited email seeking to sell me something, attend a seminar, etc., And most of it gets caught in the SPAM folder or immediately deleted. One that I received in October caught my eye though, a promotion for National Disability Employment Awareness Month. It led me to the Source America website, which notes that "my disability is one part of who I am."

Coincidentally, this year those noting the Awareness Month are also celebrating 25 years of the Americans with Disability Act, the "ADA." That is a little hard for me to accept, it seems like they just passed that law yesterday. The last 25 years have sure passed quickly.

There is a lot of information on that website about disabilities. It notes that "the lives of many Americans with significant disabilities are filled with stories of success or unrealized promise." In short, there are inspirations and frustrations. 

But note this, they say there are "60-plus million Americans with disabilities who are of working age." That is quite a number. This site does not define "working age." I got my first job before I was 18, and know many others who did. I know a good number of people who are still working and over 65. So I am not sure those age parameters define "working age."

The U.S. Census bureau however provides some interesting statistics. Its website says that there are 318,857,056 Americans and 23.1% (73,665,980) are under 18 while 14.5% (46,234,273) are over 65. If 18 and 65 define "working age," an assumption at best, then that means there are 198,966,803 "working age" Americans. If the "60-plus million" figure is accurate, that means that more than 30% of the American working-age population has a disability. This might be illustrated by thinking of your two best friends; among the three of you, statistically, one has a disability. That is an incredible statistic.

The Source America website blog says that "almost 80 percent of" that "60-plus million" adults "do not participate in the labor force." Eighty percent of 60 million is 48 million. Forty-eight million working age Americans not participating in the labor force. That is a sobering statistic also. That website author asserts that "it’s clear that we as a society are not doing nearly enough to empower what has become the largest group of disenfranchised people in the country." I provide some highlights from that blog here, but it is worth a visit to get their whole perspective.

She says that there are obstacles to employment for these people. They "include education, leveraging existing resources and current public policy." Not insurmountable in her opinion, but significant nonetheless. 

The author recommends more with disabilities need to make the transition from high school to college. That is perhaps true of everyone, regardless of disability. But college is expensive, and getting more so each year. We have vast campuses, with phenomenal physical assets, and many tax dollars have been devoted to these institutions. 

Some feel that existing facilities and the current volume of instructors could handle a much larger population of students. There are anecdotal reports of full-time college teachers making admirable salaries for teaching 15 hours per week, 30 weeks per year. Other sites claim these faculty members work more like 50+ hours per week. 

So, could existing resources be better used; could more students be educated for the existing expense. The cost per student would decrease if that were true. Still others suggest colleges should spend less on football teams, research, or some other segment of interest. Opinions abound. 

The Source America website blog author also seems to concede that college may not be for everyone, and says that some would do well with "professional development and on-the-job training." With such efforts, her conclusion is that "the skills of our students" will be appropriately matched "with the tasks involved in performing a job.” That argument might be applied to a great many people. Much of our working population learned a great many skills on-the-job. I know I did. 

She notes that there are already resources in the American community, but that they need to be further leveraged. The author says that "over reliance on parents or legal guardians for financial support" by the disabled has to be reduced. She notes that the disabled may have "little incentive to leave the nest and no job opportunities on the horizon." This, she believes, leads to inaction, and atrophy of the skills and abilities that these people have. In short, going to school should lead to gaining knowledge and ability, but like muscles exercise is needed to keep skills. 

The blog post cites a Harris Poll regarding America's perceptions of employment for people with disabilities. The vast majority of those surveyed in that effort support the hiring of those with disabilities. Despite this support or belief, she notes "these statistics are telling, but the reality is that 80 percent of working-age adults with disabilities remain ostracized from the workforce." Remember, that this is about 48 million people if my math is correct. 

That 48 million is a huge number. The population of our ten largest cities, New York City (8.3 million), Los Angeles (3.9), Chicago (2.7) Houston (2.2), Philadelphia (1.5), Phoenix (1.5), San Antonio (1.4), San Diego (1.3) and Dallas (1.2), together are only about 24 million, one-half of the 48 million that these advocates claim are working-age disabled that are not participating in the labor market. 

Finally, she advocates more legislation. She notes that there are a multitude of statutes in place. She concludes that these many statutes have not eradicated unemployment because employers harbor "misconceptions that individuals with significant disabilities lack the ability to complete the work as well as people without disabilities, and that they require cost-intensive accommodations to properly perform the job." 

The Author sees impediments to adding legislation. She believes that there is "fragmentation and differing views in the disability community which challenge the opportunity to positively influence the additional work that needs to be done in public policy." In other words, there is not consensus on what further legislation might move things forward. I remember when the ADA was touted as the be all and end all of the debate. 

The overall theme of the post seems to be that great progress has been made in the world of disabilities, but that more is needed. What more is the subject of debate. Are there interactions with workers' compensation that bear analysis?

Do employers worry about whether a prospective employee could be at risk of future injury? In September I noted one alleged instance of this in A Comp Claim Waiting to Happen. Is an employer right to be concerned about future risk of loss? Should employers ignore potential future risks when making hiring decisions? Is such fear, justified or not, an impediment to those with existing disabilities? Is it widespread or isolated? Many questions come to mind.

When work injuries occur, is the focus to "assure the quick and efficient delivery of disability and medical benefits to an injured worker and to facilitate the worker return to gainful reemployment at a reasonable cost to the employer" set forth in Fla. Stat. 440.105 and so many statutes like it across America? And when we ask that question, it is fair to ask whether this is the focus of both principals in the workers' compensation world, the employer and the employee. 

But, the main point this morning, is that October was National Disability Employment Awareness Month. I am sorry I failed to note it then. At least we are noting it now. With the interrelationship between injuries and disabilities, the workers' compensation community should have noted October's significance. I missed it, but will try to remind you all next year. But for now, I am headed to the doughnut shop, happy doughnut day!

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