This Letter to the Editor originally appeared in the Provider, December 2020

Thirty years ago, the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) was signed into law, prohibiting discrimination based on disability in all areas, including employment. In keeping with the important legacy of the ADA, it is crucial to examine the workforce and employment opportunities for persons with disabilities to identify obstacles in the workplace and identify opportunities for increased participation and success in the workplace.

In examining the workplace in 2020, individuals with disabilities face an extremely high unemployment rate across the country. In Massachusetts, the population of individuals with disabilities is approximately 389,450, and 64% of these men and women are unemployed.

Legislation we filed earlier this session (H.2671/S.1810, An Act Relative to employment of persons with disabilities on state contracts) proposes to address this high unemployment rate by including hiring benchmarks for individuals with disabilities on state contracts, including but not limited to janitorial and custodial services, landscaping services, mailroom services, food services, fleet management, manufacturing, trash removal, document destruction, electronic scanning of documents, and facility management services.

History and research have consistently shown that individuals with disabilities can and want to work. In 1938, the federal government passed the Wagner-O’Day Act to open up markets to individuals who were blind. The legislation was subsequently amended in 1971 to include persons with significant disabilities and to provide long-term employment opportunities for persons with disabilities in the delivery of products and services to the federal government.

The program resulting from those two federal legislative initiatives, known today as the AbilityOne Program, is among the largest sources of employment in the United States for persons with significant disabilities. Annually, the program employs approximately 45,000 people per year who are blind or have significant disabilities, including 3,000 veterans. In the Commonwealth, the program employs individuals with disabilities in federal buildings in a wide range of occupations, including custodial services, mailroom services, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) services, and other building maintenance functions.

We have been fortunate to speak with workers employed through this federal program and tour their workplace. We have been impressed with their professionalism, work ethic and dedication to their craft. In each of these conversations, the message is clear and consistent: these men and women want to be in the workplace and make a paycheck by working with dignity and respect.

Similarly, H.2671/S.1810 can create meaningful employment opportunities for persons with disabilities by providing job opportunities for persons with disabilities on state contracts and address these high rates of unemployment.

In addition to empowering individuals and putting people to work, this legislation is also fiscally responsible. According to the Massachusetts Office of Disabilities, the cost of supporting a person with a disability enrolled in benefits is $42,000 per year. Many of these individuals need and should receive these benefits, and countless others are eager to join the workforce but are unable to obtain meaningful employment opportunities.

A recent study indicates that employing a person with a disability can eliminate payment of entitlement benefits to that person while generating an average of $6,918 per year from taxes collected from employment. Stated differently, when an individual with a disability secures a full-time, competitive job, the amount of money saved at the local, state, and federal levels is approximately $50,000 per person.

The past year has increased the unemployment rate across the Commonwealth, especially for individuals with disabilities. As we continue to discuss economic development, job creation, and workforce development, we have an opportunity to create an inclusive economy, close the gap in unemployment for persons with disabilities and ensure that everyone has the opportunity to work with dignity and succeed in the workplace.

State Senator Nick Collins represents the First Suffolk District
Representative David Biele represents the Fourth Suffolk District Representative Dan Hunt represents the Thirteenth Suffolk District