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My Voice: Overcoming New Employment Barriers

By: Executive Director, Scott Burlingame

According to the Disability Statistics Annual Report, North Dakota ranks number one in the country with an employment rate of 54%. There are a lot of good reasons for this. First off, even despite a slowdown over the past few years, North Dakota still has a very strong economy and overall very low unemployment rate. According to this survey, 84.2% of North Dakotans without disabilities are employed.

In addition to a stronger than average economy, I think it is pretty safe to assume that a lot of North Dakotans, with and without disabilities, are raised by parents who expect them to work and set high expectations. We also have a very solid public education system and a Vocational Rehabilitation program that has helped people with disabilities gain the skills they need to become gainfully employed.

North Dakota has the best employment rates in the country for people with disabilities and that is something to be proud of.

However, it is not good enough.

Independence, Inc. believes that employment should be the first and preferred outcome for all people with disabilities and employment should be in a community based setting. We believe people with disabilities should be paid at a rate competitive with others who do the same jobs.

Employment opens so many doors for people with disabilities. Obviously, it creates income and helps people to leave a life of poverty behind. In addition, it creates social opportunities to make friends, to earn health care benefits, and helps provide a purpose in life.

Having a significant gap between the employment rates of people with and without disabilities is unacceptable. We must do better. We must figure out how to close the employment gap and find new ways to assist people with disabilities to enter the workforce.

In order to do this, I have a few suggestions:

1) We must reframe how we think about addiction. A large number of people with disabilities who want to work, are struggling to find gainful employment as a result of addiction based charges. If we can begin to treat addiction rather than punish it, we can make it easier for recovering addicts to return to employment.

2) We must encourage people to work, even if it’s not the career of their dreams or what they did prior to acquiring a disability. We must think of employment as more than just a full time job. Many people are gaining employment skills by working part-time jobs, becoming self-employed, or working in direct marketing fields. We should encourage these types of positive alternatives for those who are struggling to find traditional, full-time employment.

3) Finally, we must end the stigma around mental health. Sadly, people with mental health have rates of unemployment much higher than other disabilities. We must create a society in which people with mental health disabilities are just as comfortable discussing work place accommodations as those with other types of disabilities.

If we can do these things, perhaps we can begin to close the employment gap, and in the process help many people with disabilities begin down the path of economic independence.

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