Taxpayers with Disabilities: Not an Oxymoron

Hiring and retaining qualified employees is a top priority for any business that wants to have a competitive advantage. Outdated attitudes toward the abilities of people with disabilities have kept two-thirds of us out of the game. However, more than 85% of businesses that have hired people with disabilities would encourage others to do likewise.

“As I waited in line at a nation-wide bread franchise that features coffee and sandwiches,” a friend said to me recently, “I watched the workers behind the counters scurry making meals, taking orders, and wiping tables clean.  I noticed two of the employees had Down syndrome – one man and one woman. Another woman, using a manual wheelchair, was refilling the cup dispenser. They all wore the franchise uniform—green shirts and tan slacks. They all wore the look of confidence. I recalled Yogi Berra’s words, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

In my own words, “the present ain’t what it used to be—” but don’t sell us short. There are few limits when people with disabilities are given the right opportunities. They are lawyers, scientists, financial masterminds, and technological wizards.

A doctor advised the family of a disabled newborn to “put the baby in an institution because he has no future,” according to the medical profession. Living from birth to death in an institution would cost more than $2 million, assuming an average life span of 65 years. The family ignored the “expert’s” advice and never put the baby in an institution. Tenacity on the part of the child and a strong family support allowed that individual to grow and eventually become a tax-paying engineer.

Most people are motivated to contribute as much as they can to society and earn all they can. Let’s face it.  Money makes the world go ‘round, and medical benefits of some sort are pretty important. Today, the government tells people with disabilities that if they earn more than $5.00 per hour ($8.30 for the visually impaired), they’ll lose their health care.  That’s less than a minimum wage! It’s unfair and simply puts them in an economically worse off position by default.

Medical Assistance for Employed Persons with Disabilities (MA-EPD), an innovative health care program in the state of Minnesota, offers a practical means for people with disabilities to earn a paycheck and also buy their medical care. Since independence and self-sufficiency are highly cherished American values—you earn, you contribute and you are productive—MA-EPD offers this to Minnesotans with disabilities.

More than 77 percent of wheelchair users are out of work because of the outdated notion that wheelchair users are sick and unable to function. Wheelchairs shouldn’t be limiting. They should be liberating, providing mobility freedom to millions of people. Just look at all the people using wheelchairs at public functions like the State Fair, or the Taste of Minnesota.  Without those devices, those people wouldn’t be able to be out living.

In the information age of the 21st Century, more and more employers are looking for brains over brawn. Even the current Administration’s New Freedom Initiative targets assistive technologies and high-quality education as a means of access and fuller integration of people with disabilities into society. However, talk is cheap.  Every Administration since President Truman has been talking about this.  The National Council on Disability recently issued National Disability Policy: A Progress Report.  It’s conclusion: “… progress has been made; more is required.”

Corner any advocate for disability rights and they will tell you things are getting better.  However, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered 40 years ago, and America is still working on the dream. Minnesota has always been a front-runner in education and ingenuity. However, budget cuts severely threaten Minnesota’s progress. Innovation may get stalled by elected officials who just want to “balance the budget,” regardless of what’s fair or smart.

People are living longer today than just twenty years ago. Today’s baby boomers are tomorrow’s senior citizens. Society will need to adapt to this aging population. Minnesota’s economy will be jeopardized as it faces a structural labor shortage when boomers become of age when they faced with the decision of whether to retire or continue working. The arithmetic is simple. The number of beneficiaries will increase; the number of workers to support them will decrease.

Let’s tap into a well deep with citizens willing and wanting to seize the American Dream. In Minnesota alone, there are 241,000 citizens with disabilities of working age. Foresight and vision are critical. Now is the time to really prepare young people with disabilities for Minnesota’s future and the future of our world. Like Yogi Berra said, “If you don’t know where you are going, you will wind up somewhere else