Jul 29, 2022 - News

Virginians with disabilities want to work — they just need a job

Illustration of a pattern of Disability Pride Month flags.
Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Amid ongoing staffing challenges in nearly every sector of employment, people with disabilities overwhelmingly remain under-employed and on the sidelines of professional life, disability advocates across Virginia tell Axios.

Why it matters: July is Disability Pride Month, celebrated in conjunction with the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the landmark 1990 legislation that guaranteed people with disabilities equal protection under the law.

Zoom in: In Virginia, 22% of adults have a disability, according to the CDC. That's more than 1.4 million residents, or 1 in 5 adults.

  • Among Virginians living with a disability, cognitive and mobility disabilities are the most common, according to the CDC.
  • People with vision, hearing and independent living impairments are also included in the population.

What they're saying: "People with disabilities are the largest minority group in the country — and it's the one anyone can join at any time," Tonya Milling, executive director of The ARC of Virginia (a statewide advocacy group that focuses on people with developmental disabilities), tells Axios.

  • "This is a huge part of our citizenry; it's our friends, our neighbors, our family," Milling adds.

Yes, but: Even though nearly a quarter of the Virginia population has a disability, people with disabilities are employed at a lower rate than the rest of the population, paid less, and are more likely to live in poverty.

By the numbers: The median income for Virginians with disabilities who worked full-time in 2019 was $45,379, compared to $51,670 for full-time workers in the state without disabilities, according to census data.

Between the lines: "The legend in the disability community is: 'food, filth, flowers and filing,'" in terms of available jobs, Colleen Miller, executive director, disAbility Law Center of Virginia, tells Axios.

People with disabilities are capable of a wide variety of jobs, but too often employers think they can't or won't work, advocate and lobbyist Matthew Shapiro tells Axios.

Meanwhile: Shapiro said he experienced this first-hand as a person who uses a wheelchair. After graduating from VCU and garnering competitive government internships, including one with former President Barack Obama's administration, he couldn't land a job, so he launched his own Richmond-based consulting firm: 6 Wheels Consulting.

  • Now he educates the private and public sector on how to be more inclusive of the disability community.

The bottom line: "We're ready and raring to go. We want to work, people just need to be given that opportunity to work," Shapiro said.

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