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America’s unseen workforce

By Jeffrey Mittman, Guest Writer

Companies across the United States are struggling to fill open positions. Many workplaces are understaffed, putting even more pressure on overworked managers and employees. Recently, I walked into a store and the woman at the register informed me she was shorthanded, as only two of the six employees showed up for their shift. She had been there longer than anticipated. She was tired and clearly dispirited. She is one of the millions of Americans who feel this way.

Employees are working overtime, on weekends and through holidays, all while taking on additional workloads to compensate for staffing issues. As managers scramble to hire, they are missing a demographic of people eager to work. They are overlooking people with disabilities.

In 1945, the U.S. Congress launched a national holiday to bring awareness to obstacles encountered by individuals who are blind or visually impaired when looking for employment. This movement has expanded to celebrate individuals with any disability in the workforce.

Today, we celebrate National Disability Employment Awareness Month in October. It is a time to recognize the past and present contributions of America’s workers with disabilities while showcasing inclusive employment policies and practices.

For Americans who are blind or visually impaired, the unemployment rate is 70%. What many employers do not realize is these very capable individuals are looking for ways to live independently, primarily by finding employment. Due to a lack of employment opportunities, almost 28% of individuals with vision loss in the United States live below the poverty line compared to approximately 11.4% for all Americans.

I am president and CEO of Bosma Enterprises, the largest employer of individuals who are blind or visually impaired in Indiana, and the current president of the National Association for the Employment of People Who Are Blind. I have a passion for connecting people who are blind or visually impaired to jobs.

Bosma employs individuals with vision loss while also working with local and regional companies to place them in meaningful employment. The NAEPB, in partnership with the National Industries for the Blind, is making progress as part of the federal AbilityOne Program in connecting people to jobs. My call today is for employers across our economy to look beyond the norm and extend their talent search to people with disabilities.

I also challenge Congress to work to redefine competitive integrated employment to eliminate the subjectivity that exists in the language of “typically found in the community.” Rather, objective employment criteria should be used to include pay, benefits and the opportunity for advancement. CIE should not be defined by who one works with, but by the quality of the job, as defined by individual choice, wages, benefits and advancement opportunities, the very qualities anyone looks for in a career.

People with disabilities are an untapped and highly competent workforce sorely needed now. They can handle machinery, operate technology or even lead an organization in a senior leadership role. The only limitation is in the opportunities available to them. Hiring individuals with vision loss can keep the U.S. workforce strong and plentiful, something the current labor pool lacks.

As our economy seeks a stable labor force, now is the time to think creatively and strategically and turn to those who want to and can fill this gap.