Policy Brief — Unlock Oregon’s Potential by Investing in an Untapped Workforce: People With Disabilities

Investing in special education can yield great dividends for employers.

Share this article!

As a former educator and current CEO of Disability Rights Oregon, I have dedicated my career to advocating for the rights and inclusion of individuals with disabilities in society. Central to achieving this goal is high-quality early-childhood and K-12 education, particularly for children and youth with disabilities. Education lays the foundation for a vibrant and inclusive workforce of the future.

Author Jake Cornett

By investing in our children and youth with disabilities today, we are not only shaping the future workforce but also fostering a more equitable and inclusive society for generations to come. Inclusive early-childhood education  and special education in K-12 plays a crucial role in making Oregon’s workforce the most competitive in the nation by providing tailored support and resources to students with disabilities to help them reach their full potential. According to a study by Nobel laureate James Heckman, every dollar invested in high-quality early-childhood education  programs yields a return of 7% to 13% per year through increased productivity and reduced social costs.

Yet, despite its importance, inclusive special-education programs often face challenges of underfunding and inadequate staffing — and schools failing to provide equal access to special education. By prioritizing investment in inclusive early childhood and special education, we can ensure every child receives the support they need to succeed academically and professionally.

Education Leads to Diversity and Inclusion in the Workforce

Investing in education goes hand in hand with fostering diversity and inclusion in the workforce. According to the Oregon Employment Department, employers reported difficulty filling 61% of vacancies in 2023. Simultaneously, Oregon’s population is shrinking and so is our total workforce. According to the U.S. Census Bureau and the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis,  little growth in our workforce is forecasted in the years ahead. People with disabilities represent a significant yet often overlooked talent pool that brings unique skills and perspectives to the table. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate of people with disabilities who were looking for work was 7.2% in 2023 — more than twice the rate of people without disabilities. People with disabilities possess a wide range of skills, talents and abilities often overlooked by employers. 

As business leaders, we cannot afford to overlook any source of potential employees to fill vacant positions — most of all, people with disabilities. As CEO of Disability Rights Oregon, I’ve worked with business leaders to promote employment of people with disabilities. In these conversations, I have heard fears about accommodation costs and unconscious bias, as well as misconceptions about the capabilities, reliability or productivity of employees with disabilities. 

Contrary to common misconceptions, accommodating workers with disabilities typically does not incur significant costs for employers. In fact, according to survey data from the the Job Accommodation Network, 56% of job accommodations cost nothing. In cases where there was a cost, employers reported a median one-time cost of $300. Further, employees with disabilities tend to have higher rates of retention and job satisfaction compared to their counterparts without a disability. A report by the Institute for Corporate Productivity found 90% of employees with disabilities had average or above-average job performance. Further, employees with disabilities have the same rates of leave usage as employees without disabilities.

Diversity and Inclusion Are Not Just Buzzwords

In today’s fast-paced business landscape, diversity and inclusion are not just buzzwords; they are essential components of a successful workforce. By hiring people with disabilities, businesses can tap into a significant market segment. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that people with disabilities represent a consumer base with an estimated annual disposable income of more than $490 billion. 

By creating inclusive workplaces where everyone feels valued and supported, businesses benefit from a diverse talent pool and gain a competitive edge. Employing people with disabilities not only enriches the workforce but also fosters innovation and creativity within organizations. These individuals often approach challenges with a fresh perspective, offering unique insights and problem-solving strategies that can drive business success. Hiring people with disabilities is not just a moral imperative or about filling a quota on a diversity web page — it’s also a strategic business decision in addressing workforce shortages. In Oregon, like many other states, there is a growing demand for workers across various industries. By providing opportunities for individuals with disabilities to gain education, training and employment, we can bridge critical gaps in the workforce and build a stronger, more resilient economy. 

Through targeted initiatives such as internships, apprenticeships and state-funded job-placement programs, we can empower individuals with disabilities to thrive in the workforce. These strategies not only benefit individuals with disabilities but also provide businesses with a pipeline of skilled and dedicated workers. I have had the privilege of witnessing the transformative impact of inclusive education and inclusive employment practices firsthand. Time and again, I have seen individuals with disabilities defy the expectations of others and excel in their chosen fields when given the opportunity to do so. By investing in education and fostering disability inclusion, we can unlock the full potential of all Oregonians and build a brighter, more prosperous future for our state. 

Jake Cornett is CEO of Disability Rights Oregon and vice president of the Board of Directors of the National Disability Rights Network in Washington, D.C. Since 1977 Disability Rights Oregon has served as the federally mandated watchdog agency for Oregonians with disabilities.