For far too long, people with disabilities have faced significant challenges finding gainful employment and participating in the workforce.
Even with laws in place to ban discrimination, those with disabilities are twice as likely to live in poverty because the odds are stacked against them when it comes to pursuing higher education and finding adequate employment.
As recently as 2020, the unemployment rate for working-age persons with disabilities was 13.3%, almost double the unemployment rate for those without disabilities. It is unacceptable that our family members, friends and neighbors with disabilities are so dramatically underrepresented in our workforce, especially when we have the ability to make New Jersey a place where all of our residents can prosper.
I am proud that the Legislature took action to address these inequities by passing two bills I sponsored to expand economic opportunities for our residents with disabilities. I am even more proud that these measures were signed by Gov. Murphy and are now law.
New Jersey must become a place where all people, regardless of their differences or disabilities, feel welcomed and valued in the workplace. With the creation of these laws, we have come closer to making this goal a reality.
I was inspired to draft this legislation after witnessing, through the experiences of my sister, Tomikica Waller, who manages a disability that impacts physical mobility at times, the many obstacles that stand in the way of people with disabilities finding employment regardless of their intellectual ability to fulfill job duties.
Although my sister has persevered and is on track to complete her graduate studies, what she has gone through shines light on the stories of many residents who are excluded from the workforce despite their best efforts to become financially independent. It should never be the case that qualified New Jerseyans are unable to find a job because of their disabilities.
These new laws seek to break down the barriers causing this employment disparity and empower our residents with disabilities to pursue their employment and career aspirations.
Specifically, the first law (formerly bill A-5294) will establish a fast-track hiring and advancement opportunity program that will help qualified persons with significant disabilities participate in the competitive hiring and promotion process within the State workforce. Under the program, appointing authorities will be more efficient in hiring, promoting, retaining, and advancing qualified individuals with physical or mental disabilities.
The second law (formerly bill A-5296) will develop a “State as a Model Employer of People with Disabilities” (SAME) program to raise awareness for employment opportunities for people with disabilities, remove barriers to the application and hiring process, and create mechanisms to increase retention rates for people with disabilities employed by the State.
These programs are designed to level the playing field for job seekers with physical or mental disabilities and allow them to claim their well-deserved seats at the table. Creating these programs is a reasonable step to take to ensure qualified people with disabilities can succeed and build their lives in New Jersey.
We have a duty to make New Jersey a better place to live for all our residents and we cannot allow those with disabilities to be left behind.
This piece was originally published on NJ.com on January 25, 2022: https://www.nj.com/opinion/2022/01/new-jersey-just-became-better-for-people-with-disabilities-opinion.html