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News 5 Investigates: Wage and employment gap greatly impact people with disabilities

Some people with disabilities earn less than $1/hr
Posted at 6:32 PM, Oct 02, 2019
and last updated 2019-10-02 20:57:23-04

COLORADO SPRINGS — Unemployment rates are at historic lows right now, but that's not the case for people with disabilities.

News 5 Investigates learned there's a large wage and employment gap for people with special needs.

October is "Disability Awareness Month" and The Independence Center along with city and county leaders kicked off the month with a special forum to give local employers the resources, tools and information they need to hire workers with disabilities.

About 150 local business leaders and community members attended the 4th Annual Disability Awareness Forum inside the Chapel Hills Library this week.

Everyone in attendance took the initiative to learn more about ADA accommodations and employing people with special needs.

"We are such valued members in the community just like everyone else and we want to showcase that and explore our talents," Kayla McKeon with the National Down Syndrome Society said.

McKeon is the first registered lobbyist with down syndrome. She travels across the country to raise awareness and encourage employers to give people with disabilities a chance.

"The biggest misconception today is people look at somebody with a disability and think, 'Oh she can't do that,'" McKeon said. "That is so not true. We can do anything that we set our minds to and we will continue to pursue our dreams."

Despite low unemployment rates, people with disabilities continue to be under-employed.

Only 29-percent of working age people with disabilities are participating in the workforce, compared to 75-percent of those without a disability. This information was provided to News 5 by The Independence Center, a local advocacy organization in Colorado Springs.

"Many people don't work with individuals with disabilities and they don't understand that they can do just as much as regular employees," Shirley Martinez with Colorado Springs Utilities said.

Martinez is a senior compliance specialist with CSU and assists with ADA accommodations in her workplace. For her, this topic hits close to home.

"I do have a child that has a disability," she said. " He can do just as much as someone else."

While Colorado's minimum wage sits at $11.10 an hour, federal law actually allows employers to pay people with disabilities a lot less.

According to disability advocates, some people with special needs earn less than $1 an hour.

Leaders with The Independence Center want lawmakers to step in and change this rule.

"Individuals with disabilities make significantly lower statistically than our average population work wise so what we're really trying to do is decrease the gap and make sure that people with disabilities out there are making what everyone else in the community is making," Jamie Harrell with The Independence Center said.

The Pikes Peak Workforce Center will hold a career fair specifically for people with disabilities on Wednesday, Oct. 16 from Noon - 3:30 p.m. at the Southeast YMCA on Jet Wing Drive.