OPINION: We Expect Too Little From People With Disabilities

Ollie Cantos Board of RespectAbility
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There are over 22 million working-age Americans living with some form of disability, but even though a significant majority want to work and be independent, fewer than 7.4 million are able to do so. While the nation’s current rate of 3.7 percent unemployment means that we have effectively reached full employment, nearly two-thirds of persons with disabilities do not have a job.   

Part of the problem is that we expect too little from persons with disabilities. As someone who has been blind from birth and who has adopted and helped raise three blind triplets, I’ve seen it myself.

Some background: for my mother, a Filipino immigrant, blindness imposed no special limits on me.

From childhood, she expected me to perform the same chores as the other family members. When I’d try to beg off, pointing out that I couldn’t even see the dirt on the floor that she wanted me to clean, she’d say, “Well, use your hands to find it!”

Blind people and others with disabilities endure an unemployment rate of around 60 percent — but that was not the future my parents envisioned for me. I eventually became an attorney and got to serve in the White House of former President George W. Bush.

When I first met Leo, Nick and Steven, they were 10 years old and had rarely gone outside alone. Their single mother, a Colombian immigrant working two jobs and worried for their safety, was cautious about the boys, whose activities were limited to school, church, and programs organized by the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind.

They could hear the other children playing outside their northern Virginia apartment, but could never join them. Even inside their home, the three boys were limited in what they could do: their mother even picked out their clothes.

Over time, I became a mentor and a life coach to the boys, teaching them how to make their own beds, how to cut their food with a knife, how to cross a busy street.

There are all kinds of techniques that the blind use every day, like using the sun and the sounds of traffic to figure direction, and making use of today’s technology, like the voice prompts in Google Maps, to assist — but the boys knew nothing of them.

We began with trips around our community, visits to malls and water parks. Soon, the boys could always find their way around, even when I would let them get lost on purpose.

The boys’ attitudes soon improved, and so did their grades. Eventually, all three of my sons joined the Boy Scouts, becoming the first-ever blind triplets to become Eagle Scouts.

By the time the boys were 16, our trust in each other had grown to the point that their mother consented to my formally adopting them and to being granted joint custody.  Someday, I hope to marry and have more children, but God put these boys in my life, and I am grateful for every minute we spend together.

The boys have excelled. Two are now enrolled at George Mason University, the third at Southern Virginia University. All of them have held paying jobs, building a resume for success.

They did so not because of any magic on my part, nor because they have any special gifts that separate them from other people with disabilities. Rather, it happened because more was expected of them, not less, and because they were given the freedom to exercise their own individual God-given talents and abilities.

Like other Americans with disabilities, the boys and I bring unique characteristics and talents to our lives, to our interactions with others and, ultimately, into the workplace. We can work as lawyers or in hospitals, or we could apply our talents to develop computer software and website design. The realistic possibilities range from cleaning the office to running it.

Last year, 343,000 Americans with disabilities got jobs, outperforming past periods of economic growth — but with two-thirds of working-age people with disabilities still out of work, there is an awful lot of work ahead. Employers need to see us for what we can do, and not for what we cannot.

In today’s full employment economy, the U.S. Department of Labor estimates that there are more than seven million jobs waiting to be filled. In other words, America can no longer afford to exclude people with disabilities from the economic mainstream.

Any one of the millions now being sidelined could be the person who discovers a cure for cancer or a new energy source — perhaps even one of my three sons.

We must imagine a world where we expect more from people with disabilities, not less, and where those with disabilities have an equal opportunity to earn an income and live independent lives, just like everyone else.

Ollie Cantos (@Ollie_Cantos) is special assistant to the assistant education secretary for civil rights and serves on the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities. He also serves on the Board of RespectAbility, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization working to advance opportunities for people with disabilities.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.