Thursday marks 28 years since of the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act and Workforce Solutions Texoma is using the anniversary to draw attention to the need to connect more residents of the region living with disabilities with public services and open jobs.

“The ADA anniversary means a lot to us because it has helped a lot of people with disabilities find new and different opportunities to get into the workforce,” Workforce Solutions of Texas Student Hirability Navigator Rhonda Ives said Wednesday. “And that plays into our goal of helping people become independent and be valued, contributing members of our community.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act, an equal opportunity law, was passed in 1990 and signed into law by President George H.W. Bush. It is modeled after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The ADA does not list specific conditions or impairments, but defines a disability as any physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. According to 2015 U.S. Census Bureau data — the most recent year for which information is available — more than 40 million Americans live with some form of disability.

“It’s a comprehensive civil rights law in addressing the needs of people with disabilities,” Ives said of the ADA. “It prohibits discrimination in employment, public services, public accommodations and telecommunications. It has had a huge impact, not only on the lives of those living with disabilities, but also on family members, friends and colleagues.”

Ives said a significant portion of Grayson County residents have disabilities, but a large disparity exists in their representation among the local labor force.

“About 14 percent of the population in Grayson County from the ages of 18 to 64 years old have a disability,” Ives said. “But only about 6 percent of those people are working in our workforce.”

Ives said the discrepancy largely stems from a lack of public and employer education about disabilities. She explained that employers are sometimes hesitant to hire disabled employees because they aren’t sure how to make the proper accommodations.

“I think educating the community and educating employers is the key to knocking down all these barriers,” Ives said. “In all the research we have done, most employers that hire people with disabilities report high work quality. It improves job morale, corporate culture and the company’s productivity can increase. And these are employees who tend to stick around for a long time, thereby reducing turnover.”

One initiative Ives said is helping to reduce the gap is the Summer Earn and Learn program. Ives said the program spans Grayson, Fannin and Cooke counties and seeks to get disabled young people between the ages of 14 and 22 years old working with regional companies. Participants are paid for their training and work by Workforce Solutions, while employers contribute the work and facilities. Ives said the program has been successful in revealing the value of hiring employees with disabilities and may be expanded in the future to offer longer work agreements.

With area unemployment rates hitting record lows, Ives said plenty of jobs are out there and the ADA anniversary should remind businesses and organizations that there are many capable people ready and waiting to fill them.

“I think that they’re missing a pool of employees who could be very, very beneficial,” Ives said. “Ask what you can do, get educated and remember to give people a chance.”