Whether it means opening school track meets to deaf children or developing a new lunch menu with safe alternatives for students with food allergies, recent Obama administration decisions could significantly affect Americans with disabilities. But there's been little progress in one of the most stubborn challenges: employing the disabled.
According to government labor data, of the 29 million working-age Americans with a disability — those who are 16 years and older — 5.2 million are employed. That's 18 percent of the disabled population and is down from 20 percent four years ago. The employment rate for people without a disability was 63 percent in February.
The job numbers for the disabled haven't budged much since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which gave millions of disabled people civil rights protections and guaranteed equal opportunity in employment, public accommodations, transportation, government services and more.
The National Council on Disability's Jeff Rosen said longstanding prejudicial attitudes need to be addressed to boost jobs.
"Employers are still catching on to the fact that the needs of most workers with disabilities aren't special, but employees with disabilities often bring specialized skills to the workplace," Rosen said. "Perhaps no one knows how to adapt, think critically or find solutions better than someone who has to do so daily in order to navigate a world that wasn't built with them in mind."
Rosen, who is deaf, was named in January as chairman of the council, an independent federal agency that advises the president, Congress and other federal agencies on disability policy.
The Obama administration recently has acted to expand the rights of Americans with disabilities in other areas.
The Education Department's civil rights division released new guidelines that direct schools to provide students with disabilities equal access to extracurricular sports teams. If schools can't, they should create similar athletic programs for disabled children, the department said.
Also, the Justice Department said in a settlement with a Massachusetts college, Lesley University, that severe food allergies can be considered a disability under the law. That potentially could lead to new menus and accommodations at schools, restaurants and other places to address the needs of people with food allergies.
One silver lining in the lagging employment for the disabled has been federal hiring.
The latest data from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management shows nearly 15 percent of new federal hires between 2010 and 2011 were people with disabilities — almost 19,000 people. That's up from the previous year when about 10 percent of new hires were people with disabilities.
President Barack Obama signed an executive order in 2010 aimed at improving the federal ranks of people with disabilities. The goal was to add 100,000 disabled people to federal payrolls in five years; that would be within reach if the 2010-2011 hiring numbers were to stick or improve.
Federal agencies are trying to achieve the numbers through better recruitment, especially at colleges and universities. And last month, OPM issued rules to limit the paperwork that potential hires with disabilities would need to provide. They essentially "self-identify" as disabled by qualifying for a special hiring category known as "Schedule A" that allows disabled people to apply for a job through a noncompetitive hiring process, meaning they could be hired without competing with the general public.
The administration also is considering new rules that would leverage the power of federal spending to encourage companies to hire more disabled workers. The Labor Department is weighing a rule that would require companies with federal contracts to set a goal of having at least 7 percent of their workforce be disabled. Federal contractors employ nearly one-quarter of the nation's workforce.
Since the rule was proposed more than a year ago, business groups have complained that it would be too burdensome and lead to conflicts with federal laws that discourage companies from asking job applicants to identify themselves as disabled.
"We have had a long history of supporting the disabled community," said Randel Johnson, vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for labor issues. "But this proposal goes too far, woefully underestimates cost of compliance, and is completely unworkable as structured in the proposal."
Jennifer Lortie, 29, of Griswold, Conn., considers herself one of the lucky employed Americans with a disability.
Lortie was born with cerebral palsy and has limited use of her arms and legs. She graduated college during the recession and it was no easy task finding a job.
She spent more than a year scouring newspapers, job search websites and sending out dozens of resumes. She worried her wheelchair might be a strike against her until she landed a position in 2009 as an assistive technology specialist with the Connecticut Tech Act Project. The federally-funded program aims to increase independence for people with disabilities by educating them on new and best-fit technologies for work, school and community living.
"I think helping people kind of makes me think maybe there's a reason that I am in a wheelchair," Lortie said in an interview. "There has to be some reason to all this, so it gives me a sense of purpose as far as 'OK, I'm in a wheelchair but I can help other people' instead of just sitting home feeling sorry for myself."
Lortie spends four hours each day commuting to work and then back to the home she shares with her parents. They drive her to the bus stop and then she takes two buses to get to work — two hours each morning and two hours at the end of the day to get home. And she doesn't mind a bit. "I like to help people," she said.
Jill Houghton works with companies to expand employment for people with disabilities. Among the big barriers, she said, are concerns about cost. Companies worry about whether they'll have to make special accommodations or additional training and they want to know how much it's going to cost.
"The reality is that businesses have found that when they create inclusive workplaces, where people with disabilities are working side by side with people without disabilities ... the bottom line is that it doesn't increase costs," said Houghton, who heads the US Business Leadership Network, a trade association that represents about 5,000 businesses.
She said she has noticed a significant increase in calls and requests recently to the group from the business community about hiring people with disabilities.
Companies want to be inclusive of people with disabilities, Houghton said. "Businesses are learning that it just makes good business sense."
Associated Press writer Sam Hananel contributed to this report.