The statistics are staggering. A whopping 57 million Americans have disabilities, and 70 percent of those of working age are unemployed.
RespectAbilityUSA, a new national nonprofit, nonpartisan organization founded by Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi and Donn Weinberg, promises to change that state of affairs.
“These grim statistics haven’t changed in decades. As a result, Americans with disabilities live in or near poverty, are dependent on others and feel excluded from the mainstream of their communities,” said Weinberg, the founding chair of RespectAbilityUSA. “Americans with disabilities, like others, want to realize the American dream; they want to be — and be seen by others as — motivated, capable, proud, self-supporting and contributing citizens.”
Despite the many organizations that exist to train and support people with various types of disabilities, until now, there was no one advocacy group to represent these citizens.
Laszlo Mizrahi said one reason that the situation of Americans with disabilities has not changed since passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 is because the disabilities community has not been visible.
“They are isolated at home; they are fragmented, not rallying in D.C. They haven’t self-identified. There is a massive stigma,” she said.
Laszlo Mizrahi, RespectAbilityUSA president and CEO, pointed to the recent developments in human-rights policy for gay and lesbian Americans and pending legislation for immigrants as evidence that those in the disabilities community must advocate for themselves to create change.
“The number of Americans with disabilities is twice that of the Hispanic and gay and lesbian populations [in America] put together, yet they have no power at all,” said Laszlo Mizrahi, who said RespectAbilityUSA will empower the disabilities community in the same way that groups such as LaRaza and the Human Rights Campaign have given Hispanics and gay and lesbians strong voices in Washington.
According to the organization’s business plan, RespectAbilityUSA will “work to educate, sensitize and engage Americans to focus on what people with disabilities can do, rather than on what they cannot do. … Thereby, the organization will seek — gradually, steadily and in a practical way — to help increase the number and percentage of disabled Americans who engage in gainful employment, start and sustain their own businesses, lift themselves into the middle class and participate in their communities.”
Laszlo Mizrahi stressed the new nonprofit will not provide direct services or grants. Instead, RespectAbilityUSA will conduct focus groups and polling among individuals with disabilities and the general public and offer media-relations training for leaders of disabilities groups so their work and the needs of their constituent populations are better understood.
“Change will require strong bipartisan cooperation — not something in ample supply today. It will also need public-private partnerships,” said Weinberg. “We will reach out to companies, nonprofits, faith community philanthropists and media alike.”
Laszlo Mizrahi believes the time is right for people with disabilities to overcome the obstacles to employment that have stood in their way.
“The baby boomers are aging, and soon there will be a shortage of workers,” said Laszlo Mizrahi. “Taxpayers spend more than $300 billion a year on this population. The great majority of people with disabilities would rather be taxpayers than tax makers.”
Laszlo Mizrahi cited recent polls that show most people with disabilities who receive government benefits would like to work but encounter obstacles when they attempt to find employment.
“Today, every family has, in some way, been touched by a disability,” said Weinberg. “The growing ranks of children who have been diagnosed with autism, the veterans returning from foreign wars without limbs or with PTSD or people with Down Syndrome — these and all people have value and can contribute to the productivity of our great nation.”
Simone Ellin is senior features reporter with our sister publication, the Baltimore Jewish Times.