High expectations are key to increasing competitive employment among those with disabilities, a series of witnesses told a U.S. Senate panel Thursday.

The hearing is one of a series Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is holding to address ways to increase disability employment after issuing a challenge to businesses earlier this year to increase the number of people with disabilities in the workforce to 6 million by 2015.

As of June, just 4 million people with disabilities were employed, with another one million looking for work, Harkin said.

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A central barrier to jobs is perceptions about what it means to have a disability, those representing government, industry and people with disabilities told members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Amelia Wallrich, 22, who has a rare genetic disorder that limits joint movement, explained to senators how school officials encouraged her to consider community college when she was young even though she had top grades and much higher aspirations.

“As young people, we often rise to the expectations society sets for us, whether positive or negative,” said Wallrich, who will start law school at Northwestern University this fall.

Similarly, Deborah Dagit who has brittle bones due to a condition known as osteogenesis imperfecta spoke about how negative perceptions meant she struggled to find a job despite years of high-level experience.

“People with disabilities are routinely characterized as having some sort of deficiency,” said Dagit who now serves as chief diversity officer at Merck.

She pointed out that in order to receive disability benefits from Social Security individuals must declare that they cannot work. “This is the ultimate example of a deficit model approach, and is bad policy if we want individuals with disabilities to be part of the workforce,” she said.

Instead, Dagit said that Merck has been successful at incorporating employees with special needs by focusing on disabilities as simply differences that are outweighed by other strengths.

Harkin was receptive to Dagit’s point, acknowledging, “we’ve built up a system based on dependency and we’ve just got to start breaking that down.”

While the hearing Thursday was not tied to any specific legislation, senators said the information discussed would be helpful as they work on upcoming reauthorizations of employment and education laws.