Easterseals and the History of Disability Employment

Easterseals and the History of Disability Employment

As we celebrate National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), it’s important we recognize that Easterseals was part of the disability rights movement early on.

A disabled German ex-serviceman working as a carpenter with the aid of a prosthetic arm, Germany, circa 1919. (Photo by FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

A Little History

In 1918, Congress passed laws creating a rehabilitation program for World War I soldiers with a disability. Providing support for people with disabilities became more widespread, and it was in this environment that the Ohio Society for Crippled Children, which would eventually become Easterseals, was founded one year later. Disabled World War II veterans once again raised public awareness around the movement, and in 1945, Congress enacted Public Law 176, establishing what we know today as National Disability Employment Awareness Month.

George H. W. Bush signing the Americans with Disabilities Act into law in 1990

Easterseals and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)  

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which eventually led to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This was the first federal legislation to address access and equity for people with disabilities, which includes disability employment rights for federally funded programs. 

The disability rights movement achieved a major victory when President George H. W. Bush signed the ADA into law in 1990. While this has led to increasing opportunities for people with disabilities, studies show that there’s a lot more that must be done. Take a look back at these historic campaign posters that Easterseals ran in 1990 to promote the impact the ADA had on disability employment.    

Disability Employment Today

According to this report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 60 million people in the U.S. have a disability. Additionally in 2022, Bureau of Labor Statics data showed that the unemployment rate for people with a disability was twice as high as the rate for people without a disability.  

These Americans face various employment-related challenges such as being passed over for jobs they’re qualified for, making career transitions, and/or wage discrimination.  

While people with disabilities have historically been underrepresented in the labor force, currently, there is much work being done by policymakers to change this. Several of these initiatives include implementing inclusive hiring initiatives in state government, efforts to eliminate the subminimum wage, increasing mental health supports, and building capacity among service providers to ensure people have access to the employment supports they need. 

Recently, California passed Senate Bill 639, which will eliminate subminimum wage for people with disabilities as of January 1, 2025, making California the 13th state to end this practice. This is a historic but overdue victory for disability rights in California as it will bring greater independence and opportunities for people with disabilities.   

Easterseals Continues to Advocate for Change   

Easterseals Southern California is continually increasing awareness and employment opportunities for people with disabilities, especially through our WorkFirst Employment Services program. This service provides one-on-one, customized support and direct placement for people with disabilities and veterans re-enteringWorkFirst participant enjoys his job working in a bird shop. the workforce. We also offer specialized employment services to support individuals who have committed non-violent offenses through our NextPath program in the Orange County area. 

As we look ahead to the future, we must challenge ourselves – what are we doing as individuals to increase awareness and provide employment opportunities for people with disabilities? We can each commit to improving our own spaces and organizations to include universal design and accessibility practices and by implementing the Disability Equality Index tool to eliminate barriers to independence.  

You can find more information and resources about National Disability Employment Awareness Month by visiting the U.S. Department of Labor website and by participating in the 31 Days of NDEAM challenge.  

About the Author:

Debbie Ball is Vice President of Employment Services for Easterseals Southern California. In addition to developing and overseeing services, she actively promotes Employment First and Customized Employment locally, within the state, and nationally.

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