One in 10 New Jerseyans has a disability, but many more benefit every day from the Americans with Disabilities Act signed 23 years ago.
Parents of infants in strollers, for instance, appreciate the curb cuts and building ramps that help people who use wheelchairs get around more easily. And fitness enthusiasts watching TV from the treadmill at the local gym follow along by reading the same closed captioning that enables the deaf to keep up with the news or enjoy a show.
But the landmark law, whose goal is eliminating discrimination against the disabled, still has a way to go in a number of areas, including employment. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that just 37 percent of disabled New Jersey adults under age 65 are employed. Nearly 220,000, or more than half of all working-age adults, were not in the labor force or looking for work in 2009-2011.
“The ADA was the civil rights act for people with disabilities,” said Samuel Rabinowitz, a professor of management at the Rutgers School of Business in Camden. But noting that so many disabled adults are not even participating in the job market, he said “getting greater employment opportunities” has proven to be a challenge.
“Absolutely we have a ways to go,” he added.
The question is more than academic for Rabinowitz, whose son was born profoundly deaf and has been unable to find work in his field despite having a master’s degree in city and regional planning.
“Most accommodations do not cost a lot of money,” he said.
The census data shows that fewer than 4 percent of all those employed, or a little more than 150,000, have a disability, while the disabled make up about 8 percent of the unemployed. Two of every 10 New Jerseyans not in the labor force is disabled.
Signed by President George H.W. Bush, the law guarantees equal opportunity for people with disabilities in more than employment. Public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation, government services, and telecommunications must also ensure they are accessible to the disabled. And disability activists and the U.S. Department of Justice have been working to enforce the act in all those areas. Several months ago, New Jersey agreed to settle a so-called Olmstead case, stating its intention to move 600 people from developmental centers into the community to live.
While almost half of New Jersey’s disabled population is age 18 to 64, the prevalence of disabilities rises with age, and fully a third of senior citizens have at least one disability. While ambulatory difficulties are still most common, more than 10 percent of those age 65 and over have a hearing disability or are unable to live independently. So it’s not surprising that the counties with the largest percentage of disabled residents are also those in the South with larger senior populations — Cumberland, Ocean and Salem.
The size of New Jersey’s disabled population is significantly smaller than the nation’s. According to census officials, about 19 percent of all Americans, or 56.7 million people, had a disability. Only Utah had a smaller proportion of its population disabled — 8.8 percent.
And while New Jersey’s unemployment rate remains higher than the national average, the employment rate for the disabled in New Jersey was better than the nation’s — 37 percent, compared with 33 percent across the country.