Pauli: Coloradans with disabilities want to work


This year marks the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, yet only 42.3 percent of Colorado’s 267,000 working-age residents with disabilities are employed. This means fewer than half of people with disabilities in Colorado have the dignity, friendships, income and purpose that jobs provide.

The ADA was landmark legislation meant to ensure the civil rights of people with disabilities. Since the ADA was passed, architecture and infrastructure have improved. Yet attitudes and opportunities have not. Today there are many onramps to get into buildings, but far fewer to get into jobs. Academic studies have confirmed that overall people think that people with disabilities are not competent. One outcome of those stigmas is that many employers deny people with disabilities the chance to work.

1-in-5 Americans have a disability. I have seen the trials and triumphs of people living with disabilities first hand among my friends and family. One of my closest childhood friends was a young boy on the Autism spectrum who couldn’t read the emotions on other people’s faces and struggled to sit still. Behind those behaviors was a brilliant mind that too many people failed to see. I have since watched as another friend on the spectrum struggles to get by bouncing between low paying jobs and trying to form social connections. Compared to other of his peers facing these same challenges, he is one of the lucky ones. Where I have seen struggle, however, I have also seen success. My late godmother contracted polio as a young girl growing up on a farm on the border between Colorado and Wyoming. No matter the crutches or the doubts of others, she worked hard to get an education and to find employment. She spent decades working in the financial sector and was able to enjoy the full promise of the American dream because she found an employer who valued her talents rather than seeing only her limitations.

As much as stigma remains a problem, there is hard evidence that shows that people with disabilities can be highly successful workers. Virgin Airways founder Sir Richard Branson and finance wizard Charles Schwab are dyslexic. Scientist Stephen Hawking, like Governor Abbott of Texas and President Franklin D. Roosevelt before him, is a wheelchair user.

Today in Colorado 15,700 youth with disabilities between the ages of 16 and 20 are preparing to enter the labor pool. They have high expectations and want the opportunity to achieve the American dream. There are simple measures that may be put in place to assist their transition into the workforce.

People who are blind, deaf, or non-verbal typically use assistive technology. Those with intellectual disabilities can benefit greatly from internships and job coaches. Comcast, Ernst & Young LLC, Lockheed Martin, Sprint and other companies have seen that people with disabilities can be extremely capable and loyal workers. While there are few Stephen Hawkings — with or without disabilities — people with disabilities can work in hospitality, tend our parks, assist aging seniors, or be super talents in developing computer software.

Vocational rehabilitation programs in Colorado helped 2,496 people with disabilities find work in 2012, the last year when data is public. Together as a state, we have a chance to do much more in the future.

Under the new Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act, Gov. Hickenlooper has a chance to build a better future for Coloradans with disabilities. Under this law, he can enable more people with barriers to obtain jobs by breaking down the siloes between education, transportation, workforce development, healthcare and other departments.

Already, Colorado has been making some progress. Between 2012 and 2013, the employment gap decreased by 1.8 percent. Gov. Hickenlooper, who grappled with dyslexia growing up, has been a major part of this. In 2012, he testified on behalf House Bill 1238, which aims to identify children struggling to read early on, and create a plan to help them succeed in school. We need to build on these successes.

Colorado should focus on programs that are proven to succeed. Public-private-philanthropic partnerships, along with programs such as Project SEARCH and Bridges to Work, can bring breakthroughs and success that will be win-win-win for people with disabilities, employers and taxpayers alike.

Philip Pauli is the policy and dractices director of, a non-profit organization working to enable people with disabilities to achieve the American dream. Raised in Lakewood, and a graduate of the University of Denver, Philip now travels the country advocating for greater job opportunities for people with disabilities. Reach him at

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