Commentary: Ignoring the Rights of Michiganders with Disabilities is Bad for Business by Dave Meador

Do civil rights extend to people with disabilities in Michigan? It’s hard to believe this question is being asked in 2023. Everyone deserves to be included and live a full life in their community.  The law says everybody is entitled to human and civil rights, regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity and other important factors.

But when we say “everybody” – does that include people with disabilities, including intellectual and developmental disabilities? People with autism, like my daughter? Does it include the entire Michigan workforce and tens of thousands of Michiganders who are shut out of work because of a disability? The blunt answer is no.

Civil rights protection for people with disabilities, came with the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. This law is designed to ensure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. It prohibits discrimination in employment, education, transportation and other areas of public life. But like other elements of civil rights, the fact there is a law doesn’t mean people know it, understand it, and live it in their heart.

For children and adults on the autism spectrum in Michigan, we are making progress but there is so much work to do. Research shows that early diagnosis, access to evidence-based therapies and a world-class special education with a focus on vocational training can put many adults on the spectrum on a path to employment and independence.

Unfortunately, too many children are diagnosed far very late and access to therapies takes too long, wasting valuable time. Delays in diagnosis and therapies is even greater for children of color.

Furthermore, there’s special education in Michigan which has been chronically underfunded by about $1 billion a year. About half of Michigan’s children in special education leave high school without a diploma and deep academic deficits. The results? About 90% of adults with autism in Michigan are unemployed, leading to a lifelong sentence of isolation and poverty.

If the civil rights laws are designed to protect all students, how can we continue to have these terrible outcomes in Michigan? When we say “all children” does that really mean all children or just some? If it meant all children, we would be funding special education properly and training teachers in evidence-based methods.  The graduation rates would be 90%, with many landing jobs after high school.

We also encourage businesses to expand their lens on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion to include people with disabilities and establish aggressive hiring goals. Tapping into a workforce with tremendous potential is good for business.  It creates a love and brand loyalty from your customers which will set you apart from your competition.

Michigan is making progress, but we have to accelerate the momentum. Special education funding increased last year, but there still is a massive gap. This year’s proposed budget provides 35% more staffing for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights to enhance disability compliance, training and reduce the large number of discrimination complaints related to ADA. This is real progress.

Let’s not lose sight of the spirit and intent of the ADA and that all people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else, including education and employment.

Please join me in fighting for the civil rights of people with disabilities for better lives.

Dave Meador is the Co-Founder and Board Member of the Autism Alliance of Michigan. Recently retired as the Vice Chairman of DTE Energy, Meador is Executive Director of Detroit Regional CEO group and serves on the Southern Company‘s Board of Directors.