A New Era for Disability Employment

Notes from the President: 

jonAlmost 30 years ago, on July 26, 1990, President George H. W. Bush made a bold pronouncement: “With today’s signing of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, every man, woman, and child with a disability can now pass through once-closed doors into a bright new era of equality, independence, and freedom.”

As president and CEO of Easterseals DC MD VA, I’m proud of Easterseals’ legacy of both direct service and advocacy to change the way the world defines and views disabilities. Since our founding in 1919, we have been at the forefront of change and innovation. Our staff and volunteers were leaders in the fight for passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The fight for the rights of individuals with disabilities to have equal opportunities for employment, public accommodation, transportation, state and local government services, and telecommunications. Part of that fight was a series of advertisements to illustrate the dilemmas and desires of Americans with disabilities to have the same opportunities as every American–to live, learn, work, and play in their communities. If you’re a history buff like me, you’ll enjoy looking at these advertisements.


Together, we have reached some incredible milestones – most Millennials and Generation Zs have no concept of life without curb cuts on sidewalks or wheelchair ramps in buildings. Most buses have wheelchair lifts. Therapy services are much more widely available. Children now have the opportunity to be educated in a less restricted environment, but rather an inclusive classroom where they can learn side-by-side with their typically developing peers.  An arrangement that benefits all.

One area that has not kept pace, however, is employment. Today only 30 percent of working-age adults with disabilities are employed. In the D.C. metro region there are more than 330,000 working-age individuals with disabilities who are NOT employed. Adults with disabilities are twice as likely to live in poverty as those without disability. The reality: although the ADA provided more access, employment continues to be a challenge.

That’s why we recently launched the Easterseals Disability Staffing Network (EDSN, pronounced “Edison”) to break down barriers to employment faced by many people with disabilities. EDSN is a social venture employment service that matches adults with various disabilities with a wide range of private sector employers. It works on two levels, first by serving as an intermediary for businesses or organizations seeking to employ individuals with disabilities. Then, recruiting from the area’s service agencies that provide job training and other support services to source a large pool of candidates. We will also recruit graduates (of colleges, high schools, and technical schools) and other employable individuals with various disabilities. Easterseals has worked with many local vocational rehabilitation, supported/customized employment, and state agencies to understand the barriers to helping more of their clients find successful jobs, as well as careers. EDSN is the next phase for progressing disability employment.


EDSN also prepares candidates through our job search e-learning program, and trains employers on how to successfully integrate people with disabilities into their workforce. EDSN builds on our success with the Veteran Staffing Network (VSN), which creates new employment markets for thousands of veterans and military family members (many of whom have disabilities). Additionally, our model breaks down barriers for employers by providing the opportunity to utilize a temp-to-hire model that allows companies to try out employees. We also have a strong network with committed companies through the VSN, who already know the value of hiring people with disabilities, and can help make successful connections.

So why should companies want to hire workers who have disabilities? The answer is simple – to build a great workforce. Overall, workers with disabilities have superior timeliness and attendance records and lower turnover rates than the general workforce. There can also be tax advantages for hiring individuals with disabilities. As director of EDSN Deirdre Bulgar notes, “The desires of people with disabilities are no different from yours or mine. They want to work, make a fair wage, work in an environment where they are appreciated, and gain satisfaction that they were productive at the end of the day.”

IMG_9299With EDSN, Easterseals wants to empower individuals with disabilities to obtain integrated, competitive employment, so they can live productive and independent lives. Marsha Johnson, an employee of Easterseals, is a perfect example of an individual who has worked to her potential, despite having a disability since she was diagnosed with polio at the age of 5. For most of her life, she has lived without full use of her legs. However, her parents provided her with incredible support and motivation from the time she was a child, from connecting her to every available resources (including Easterseals) to instilling in her a sense of hard work to ensure she not only lives, but thrives. Ultimately, Marsha achieved a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Gannon University, and then worked as a social worker in Pennsylvania’s Department of Health and Human Services for 25 years. She was also the first African-American woman to be employed in the department for child welfare.

Now retired, Marsha continues to work as a front desk receptionist at Easterseals’ Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Inter-Generational Center, welcoming other members of the community of all abilities. “People come to Easterseals because they need help, and when I see them at the front desk, or answer their calls, I see my mother in them – just reaching out for help,” says Marsha.

IMG_9300Marsha is truly an inspiration and an embodiment of our vision of creating a hopeful, inclusive community where all people achieve their potential and live meaningful lives. Easterseals Disability Staffing Network is another innovative stepping stone towards that promise for thousands of Americans living with disabilities.

To learn more about Easterseals Disability Staffing Network, contact Deirdre Bulger, director of EDSN at dbulger@eseal.org.

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