It’s remarkable how much has changed in one generation with regards to our understanding of disability and its impact on the opportunity to live a full life and be part of the community.

If this were the 1970s and you had a teenager with a disability, it would be unlikely that you would be thinking about employment and a full life for him or her — or that the teenager would be part of the conversation, making his or her own choices. Instead, you would be faced with few stark options: institutionalization, life at home with aging parents, or a workshop where individuals spent the day with other disabled adults, often paid subminimum wages, if at all.

Thanks to self-advocates and their families working tirelessly to educate a generation of Americans with the understanding that individuals with disabilities do not need to be isolated from the rest of society, the landscape of services and supports has shifted dramatically.

“Since 1938, companies have been able to receive a ‘special wage certificate’ from the Department of Labor that allows them to pay workers with disabilities less than the federal minimum wage.”

Good work, fair pay

The modern era of services has its roots in the in 1973, with the passage of the Rehabilitation Act, which created the Rehabilitation Services Administration. That agency funds state vocational rehabilitation agencies to provide services to disabled individuals. In 2014, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) made important amendements to the Rehabilitation Act and reimagined it with a more constructive approach to a workforce development system. A system that historically presumed that individuals with disabilities could not work now approaches service delivery with the assumption they can — a philosophy often referred to as Employment First — and even more importantly, gives them opportunities to be successful at work with proper supports and services.

One particularly important change in WIOA is its attempt to limit the use of subminimum wages to pay individuals with disabilities. Since 1938, companies have been able to receive a “special wage certificate” from the Department of Labor that allows them to pay workers with disabilities less than the federal minimum wage. The new WIOA mandates that a series of steps be taken before an individual under the age of 24 can be placed in a job paying less than minimum wage, ensuring that those who want to work in real jobs are supported to do so.

Great expectations

Research shows us that the best predictors of employment for youth with disabilities are high parent and teacher expectations and solid work experience in high school. WIOA includes several provisions that provide early work support for young people with disabilities that prepares them with critical work skills so that they can engage in a life of professionally and personally rewarding employment.

These important legislative changes go hand in hand with the growing understanding that hiring individuals with disabilities is not just something that falls into a corporate program — it’s also good for a business’s bottom line.

Disability is a natural part of the human experience, and millions of Americans with disabilities can do excellent work. There has been a major shift in public policy and corporate hiring perspectives that individuals with disabilities should be part of the employment landscape, rather than shuttled into disability-only environments where they are less likely to interact with others without disabilities. Both individuals with disabilities and their communities are better off as a result.