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Nearly 8,000 miles away from home, in the middle of a rice paddy outside of Roxas City, Philippines, I met April Joy, 24, who has physical and intellectual disabilities. Following Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, the team at Handicap International got to know April. They could see that she had untapped skills that would help her earn a living if only she could be given the chance.

That’s the thing; people with disabilities–any type of disability–should be given the chance to work. So I was very pleased when I learned that HI provided April with her own computer and Wi-Fi access allowing her an opportunity to earn in income.

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to further explore this important right for people with disabilities by attending the Harkin International Disability Employment Summit in Washington, DC. Over two days, I heard many more stories like April’s. Stories of people with disabilities who were given a chance and the managers and companies that are providing opportunities. 

But while there were many successful stories passed between the 300 participants from across 40 countries, we couldn’t forget about the facts: globally, fewer than 20% of people with disabilities currently work, which results in an annual estimate loss of $1.37-1.94 trillion GDP. 

People with disabilities around the globe seek employment for the same reasons as people without disability. It gives our lives meaning. It provides financial independence, the opportunity to contribute to society, and helps us define ourselves.

And while we all agreed that continual awareness of the challenges in hiring people with disabilities is crucial in moving toward concrete change, Senator Tom Harkin (retired) reminded us that we weren’t there to just share best practices. And we couldn’t just continue to state the obvious. We have to be bold and try things that no one has tried before.

Senator Harkin set a big goal: to double the global rate of employment for people with disabilities in the next decade. In order to do this, we must take steps to shape the future of disability employment and recognize the importance of universal design in order to make the workplace successful for people with disabilities. And on the second day of the Summit, I had the privilege to sit on a panel with four other young professionals to discuss just that.

We discussed a range of topics from attitudinal barriers in the workplace to entrepreneurship, and issues of sexual violence and gender equity to the “third shift,” a term used to describe when people with disabilities work overtime and without compensation as they travel and advocate for their rights. 

I shared about my time spent working the “third shift” as a speaker and how I work to break through the stigmas about people with disabilities. I also discussed my travels with HI where I’ve seen the work they are doing in places like Nepal and the Philippines to help people with disabilities find dignified, meaningful work. My first-hand witness of other cultures and their views about disability, as well as my knowledge of HI's continuing work on the ground, gave me a unique perspective.

But at the end of the day, the conclusion for all of us was the same. And that’s this: people with disabilities are the most adaptive and creative employees that can be hired. We have spent our entire lives working though significant challenges. Employers must change their systems and employ people with disabilities in mainstream, full-time positions.

It was such a privilege to be surrounded by people who are having a tangible impact on disability employment, and we all left with a renewed commitment toward pursuing these efforts. We also agreed to have each other’s backs, because it really is a team effort. And most importantly: working toward the goal of doubling the global rate of employment for people with disabilities over the next decade. 

So let’s do it!

Jessica Cox

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