July 14, 2011
The Need for New Strategies for Improving Employment for People with Disabilities
As the nonprofit membership organization for the federally mandated Protection and Advocacy Systems and Client Assistance Programs for people with disabilities, the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) would like to thank Senators Harkin and Enzi and the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, for their recent attention to the employment-related needs of people with disabilities. This hearing and the March 2, 2011, hearing on Employment Opportunities for People with Disabilities, demonstrate a continued commitment to improving the employment situation for people with disabilities.
People with disabilities continue to face unemployment at a rate much higher than that of the general population. According to the Office of Disability Employment Programs, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities in June 2011 was 16.9 percent, compared with 9.0 percent for persons with no disability. Moreover, over 78 percent of the non-institutional population with disabilities ages 16 years and over is not in the labor force at all, meaning that they may have given up on seeking employment or not be aware of employment services available.
Many individuals with disabilities are working in segregated settings for subminimum wage. In its January 2011 report, Segregated & Exploited: A Call to Action!, NDRN documented the risks of exploitation and abuse that come with segregated or subminimum wage settings, and discussed case studies of people with disabilities paid extremely low wages for years, with little review of the role that vocational rehabilitation agencies are intended to play in providing services for people to leave segregated workshops or subminimum wage positions. Also, there is little monitoring of the requirement that education agencies take into account each student’s preferences or interests when transitioning people with disabilities from education into the workplace, or that vocational rehabilitation agencies have a role in this transition. The report is available here.
Segregated employment and work at subminimum wages limit the ability of people with disabilities to become independent, self-sufficient members of the community. Almost all employment options within segregated workshops are unskilled, low-wage jobs with few, if any, benefits, and few opportunities for advancement. Consistent isolation of people with disabilities from people without disabilities can hinder the proper development of socialization skills and self-esteem. As the disability community has long understood, integration leads to increased satisfaction with their living and working arrangements and increased overall happiness, as well as improved adaptive behavior skills. Segregated workshops provide little, if any, benefit for people with disabilities, and the federal government should end Medicaid and other federal funding of these programs.
NDRN supports the increased use of supported and customized employment as a way to enhance the ability of people with disabilities to work in an integrated and competitive setting, based on an “employment first” model. In such a model, vocational rehabilitation agencies and education officials working on transitioning of people with disabilities into employment focus first on finding the person an appropriate job, and then finding the services and supports necessary to make that employment a reality. Customized employment means individualizing the relationship between employees and employers in a way that meets the needs of both, based both on the strengths and interests of the employee and on the needs of the employer. A customized job may differ from the employer’s standard job descriptions, but is based on actual tasks that are found in the workplace and meet the unmet needs of the employer. It may include employment through job carving, self-employment, or entrepreneurial initiatives.
Examples of the successful use of customized employment services to successfully provide competitive employment to people with disabilities, at competitive wages, exist throughout the country. The Georgia Advocacy Office (the Georgia Protection and Advocacy agency) has worked with vocational rehabilitation agencies and employers to develop demonstrations of successful customized employment for people with disabilities. The State of Washington has also developed a supported employment program, and has established customized employment services as the primary use of day program and employment funds within the State.
The federal government should, based on these and other examples, enact policies that support and encourage the spread of customized employment. Congress should work with the Department of Labor to ensure that vocational rehabilitation agencies have an active in providing customized employment services to people with disabilities. Specifically, the term “most significant disabilities” should be federally defined and monitored to ensure that vocational rehabilitation agencies provide priority services to people with the most significant disabilities first, as required by law. The federal Schedule A program should also be a tool to provide customized employment for people with disabilities, with some changes to better implement the program in a way that supports customized employment.
Although Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed in his State of the Union Address on December 3, 1907, that ”the National government should be a model employer,” federal employment of people with disabilities continues to decline. Executive Orders and goals are helpful, but are more effective if there are specific mandates and federal agencies are held responsible for complying with directives. Statistics from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) show that individuals with a disability in the federal government come into employment at a lower grade than non-disabled peers and experience little career advancement. Hiring and supervisory staff must understand the capabilities of each person with a disability and offer a full range of mentoring opportunities and support in order to assure career growth and advancement
NDRN is happy to continue working with the HELP Committee to improve employment services for people with disabilities and support greater transition to competitive, integrated employment, with the eventual goal of ending sub-minimum wage and sheltered workshops.
FOR MORE INFORMATION, CONTACT PATRICK WOJAHN: (202) 408-9514, x102.