Encouraging Employment Opportunities For All
By Becca Bauer
Even though access to employment is fundamental to achieving the American Dream, too many of the more than 54 million people in the US, who live with some type of disability, fight discrimination, negative assumptions and segregation that prevent them from receiving fair employment opportunities.
Historically, people with disabilities experience almost double the national unemployment rate. According to the US Department of Labor, in August 2012 the national unemployment rate for people with disabilities was 13.9%, as compared to an 8% rate for people without disabilities.
Although the unemployment rate for people with disabilities has gone down over the past few years, there is still a disproportionately lower number of people without disabilities who are unemployed.
The idea of supporting everyone to have fulfilling lives and the right to employment opportunities is so important that the US Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) has declared October National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). Held each October since 1945, the national campaign raises awareness about disability employment issues, celebrates American workers with disabilities and supports the inclusion of workers with disabilities as contributing members to their communities through meaningful employment.
According to ODEP, this year's campaign theme, "A Strong Workforce is an Inclusive Workforce: What Can YOU Do?," encourages a diverse workforce that embraces a highly motivated and skilled talent pool of workers with disabilities.
"Employers who ensure that inclusive workplace policies and practices are woven into the fabric and culture of the organization create an environment that encourages all workers – including those with disabilities – to work to their full capacity and contribute fully to the organization's success," said Kathy Martinez, assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy.
Over the course of the month, and even throughout the rest of the year in some cases, events, meetings and activities such as proclamations, public awareness programs and job fairs will be held across the country to illustrate the benefits of workers with disabilities and the skills and talents they bring to the workforce.
Bringing awareness to building an inclusive workforce is also taking place on a statewide level here in Georgia. According to Doug Crandell at the Institute on Human Development and Disabilities (IHDD) at the University of Georgia, and Nancy Brooks-Lane, director of Employment First Georgia (employmentfirstgeorgia.org), funded by the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities (GCDD) and the Georgia Advocacy Office (GAO), several organizations in the State are collaboratively working to build partnerships to address local level disability employment issues occurring in Georgia.
"In the past, there was often a disconnect between those on the local level trying to address common issues and those on the state level, who had the power and resources to address those needs," said Brooks-Lane. "Our goal is to create a stronger coalition statewide, so we can start solving some of these issues and let the local level organizations have a voice." Additionally, led by Crandell, IHDD has formed the Georgia Supported Employment Community of Excellence, to explore why disability employment services need to change and why it would be a good thing for Georgia. The organization focuses its work on employment training, creating opportunities for supported employment and conducting research to prove the benefits of ending segregated employment for individuals with disabilities.
IHDD is already making great progress and has collaborated with Dr. Robert Cimera, a federal level policy analyst, to conduct an analysis in Georgia that could show how there is a return on investment for states when persons with disabilities are employed with jobs integrated into the community rather than being segregated to day programs. Once the study is completed, the data will help them prove the need to make changes in the disability employment service system and how those changes could benefit not only workers with disabilities, but also the State's economy.
GCDD has also long advocated for inclusion of individuals with disabilities in workplaces in communities throughout Georgia. There are many employment programs and resources intended to provide disability employment assistance for Georgians, but the trick is to find them and then be able to figure out how to use them. GCDD reached out to leaders on the national level, Sharon Lewis, commissioner of the Administration on Intellectual Developmental Disabilities (AIDD) and on the state level, Frank Berry, commissioner of the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD), and Greg Schmieg, executive director of the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency (GVRA). The following question and answer style interviews will help the public understand the employment opportunities available within their community.
An interview with Sharon Lewis, the commissioner of the Administration on Intellectual Developmental Disabilities (AIDD) at the Administration for Children and Families:
Why is it important for people with disabilities to have access to employment opportunities?
For the same reasons that employment is important to the vast majority of adults in this country, regardless of a disability! Employment is not only the means to economic self-sufficiency, it is also an important way for people with disabilities to contribute as fully-participating members of their communities, to build a network of social relationships and to create opportunities for lifelong learning.
The confidence and growth that comes with successful employment are tremendous, and the empowerment that comes with controlling your own resources is an important part of living a self-determined life.
What are some of the barriers people with developmental disabilities face with employment opportunities?
While we are close to celebrating 50 years since the passage of the first version of the Developmental Disabilities Act, and it has been over 22 years since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, less than 28% of working-age adults with disabilities are currently employed. And, the number of people with ID/DD who are working in competitive, integrated employment is even lower.
There are many reasons for this. Graduation rates, a key indicator for employment success, hover around 30% for students with intellectual disabilities. Higher education opportunities for students with ID/DD are extremely limited. Supports and services to ensure success in competitive, integrated employment are not always prioritized. Families struggle with the interdependencies of facilitating and supporting a meaningful day for family members with ID/DD, while simultaneously trying to maintain their own employment. Transportation is also frequently a barrier in many communities.
Even with all of those difficult issues, I still believe the culture of low expectations and attitudinal barriers that people with ID/DD face every single day – in schools, in our communities, in the workplace and sometimes even perpetuated by well-meaning families, continue to be one of the biggest challenges that self-advocates confront.
What types of employment options should we encourage?
Integrated employment in the general labor market with competitive wages and benefits is the goal. This would mean that people with disabilities are employed in the same manner as most working Americans – in our stores, offices, businesses and other places in our communities, not working in sheltered workshops or enclaves.
How do you support the development of options for integrated employment through the state networks at AIDD?
AIDD is working across the country to encourage employment options in several ways. Last October AIDD awarded Partnerships in Employment Systems Change grants to six states, and we are in the process of awarding two more. In each of these eight states, consortia including policy leaders from education, vocational rehabilitation, ID/DD services and members of the AIDD network are working together to improve state systems to increase competitive employment outcomes for youth and young adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities.
AIDD has also established a formal agreement with the Office on Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) at the US Department of Labor to work together to further our coordination of resources and efforts to promote the concept of "Employment First." Many states already have resolved to implement policies that promote integrated employment as the first option of service for individuals with intellectual and other developmental disabilities through the establishment of Employment First initiatives. Both ODEP and AIDD support these initiatives and other efforts to change states' employment systems by providing technical assistance, training and capacity building support. For more information on Employment First, visit www.dol.gov/odep/topics/EmploymentFirst.htm.
How many of the AIDD state network entities (DD Councils, P&As and UCEDDs) are working toward improving employment outcomes for people with developmental disabilities?
Most of the AIDD network is working hard to improve integrated community-based employment opportunities at competitive wages for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Approximately two-thirds of the ADD network entities report active engagement related to improving employment outcomes for people with developmental disabilities through a broad range of activities including direct support for individuals with disabilities seeking employment, development of state and local policies and practices, protection of employment rights, data collection and analysis and training initiatives. A few examples include:
• UCEDDs and/or DD Councils in multiple states are working with state ID/DD agencies to establish "Employment First" as a guiding principle in policy and systems change.
• Project SEARCH is a nationally recognized education, training and internship program leading to integrated, competitive employment for students with significant disabilities. Currently seven DD Councils and three UCEDDs are supporting Project SEARCH.
• Multiple studies indicate that self-determination status is a predictor of quality of life and is positively correlated with improved employment, independent living and community inclusion outcomes, and so AIDD has committed funding to a consortium of five University Centers for Excellence on Developmental Disabilities to lead a self-determination national training initiative, the "National Gateway to Self-Determination."
• In order to provide more students the opportunity to attend quality college programs that support students with intellectual disabilities to participate in comprehensive, inclusive educational experiences integrated into institutions of higher education across the country, AIDD is investing in the Consortium to Enhance Post-secondary Education for Individuals with Developmental Disabilities project.
Are there helpful resources in each state to help people find employment opportunities?
Each state is different, but there are federally-supported employment and training resources offered in every state, including those available through one-stop employment centers, vocational rehabilitation agencies, social security work incentive programs and more. Your AIDD Network (DD Council, UCEDD, P&A) should be able to provide information about resources specific to your state.
An interview with Frank Berry the commissioner of the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD):
What are your visions and priorities for DBHDD as it relates to people with developmental disabilities?
We want people with developmental disabilities to have a choice of services and providers that fit their individual needs and preferences, so they can live as independently as possible in homes and communities that are their own. Our priority right now is to help our growing provider network understand and carry out individual service plans.
What is the current status of implementation on the Department of Justice agreement as it relates to people with developmental disabilities? Are you pleased with the progress of the transitions? Going forward, will there be more emphasis on transitioning people to living arrangements other than group homes, as recommended in the settlement?
We just finished the second year under the settlement agreement in July. We're meeting our commitments to serve more people with developmental disabilities in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs. In many cases, we're exceeding those goals. Often people focus on how many people we're moving from hospital care to community settings, and that's important, but the number of individuals and families we're helping stay at home with the right supports is just as significant. It is important to look at quality and not just numbers.
We're proud of the progress we've made, but we also know there are areas where we need to improve. We're most concerned that some individuals with developmental disabilities didn't receive adequate support from our contracted providers, so we're working with them to correct those shortcomings and improve monitoring, compliance and quality management.
The types of living arrangements individuals choose will continue to be driven first by their preferences and needs. At the same time, we have an over-abundance of some living arrangements and a lack in others, so that's something we've got to re-balance in conjunction with our providers.
What services and supports does DBHDD offer to help people with developmental disabilities who want to go to work?
The Division of Developmental Disabilities administers a Medicaid waiver service for individuals who want to find integrated and competitive employment. It's designed to help people with job development, job training and job retention.
How can the Department improve efforts to assist people with developmental disabilities who want to go to work? How can you cultivate more supported employment providers in the field?
We continue to advocate for and promote integrated employment to the public and business communities, so more job opportunities are available. Currently, we're sponsoring Customized Employment Training throughout the State. These are two-day sessions that educate and demonstrate best practices for providers and support staff of supported employment services.
Are there any policy changes that the Department should consider to improve access to employment for people with developmental disabilities? Can you, for example, consider changes to the waiver that will incentivize more individualized work arrangements rather than pre-employment as a service?
As of October 1, DBHDD will be a member of the State Employment Leadership Network (SELN). This national network consists of 27 state developmental disability agencies that are focused on improving supported employment services. SELN's stakeholder committee will discuss and consider initiatives that promote partnerships, improve service delivery and achieve successful outcomes.
How do people with developmental disabilities access employment supports offered by the Department?
An individual must be enrolled in a Medicaid waiver service (NOW or COMP) to access supported employment. If they're not already enrolled, they can contact the regional DBHDD office and speak with an intake and evaluation specialist.
An interview with Greg Schmieg, the executive director of the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency (GVRA):
What are the different types of employment supports people can receive through Vocational Rehabilitation services?
The current Vocational Rehabilitation program offers a variety of services and supports, ranging from vocational evaluation and training to tuition reimbursement for college.
These services and supports are provided through both the program itself, as well as an array of private providers across the State. However, in order to be more effective with employment outcomes for Georgians with disabilities, I want the new agency to explore new ways of thinking and new ways of serving Georgians. In partnership with our providers, advocates, schools and employers, we must begin to identify the best practices of the future. We cannot be satisfied with just doing what we have always done, so I welcome new ideas of better serving those we serve.
As the new director, what are your main goals?
The mission of the new agency is employment and independence for Georgians with disabilities, and the success of this agency should be measured solely on the outcomes of those two goals. Personally, I believe that to do that, the new agency must have an organizational culture that serves each person with a disability truly as individual-based on his or her unique strengths, talents and interests. We cannot be an agency that practices "one size fits all." So, my main goals are to help create an agency that is inclusive, transparent, creative and passionate about those we serve.
Five years down the line, how do you see the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency helping people with disabilities in Georgia find employment?
My vision is that Georgia will be a national leader in employment outcomes for people with disabilities. Having now conducted visioning sessions across the State with providers, both public and private, advocates and other stakeholders, I am so impressed by the creative ideas I have heard. I am convinced we have the talent in this State to make great advances in employment for Georgians with disabilities. That is not to say it will be easy, but there is so much enthusiasm and desire to do better among everyone I have talked to, that I believe in them and I believe in our State. So five years from now, I can envision Georgia as the State that has the lowest unemployment rate among persons with disabilities of all states; a network of public and private providers working collaboratively to serve every single individual with a disability in such a way that leads to meaningful employment and independence; an employer community that views persons with disabilities no differently than those without and a State that prides itself on how we treat Georgians with disabilities.
What is the first step for someone with a disability who wants to work?
Again, I believe that no two individuals are exactly alike, so the "first step" to employment may be different for each person. Having said that, I think it often begins with the person's interests. What is it that they like to do, or would like to do? Most of us begin to think about our future occupations and career in adolescence, and those early interests we usually stick with into adulthood. So from an agency perspective, we have to figure out how can we best understand what each person has a passion for and how we create rehabilitation plans for each person that revolves around their interests and their capabilities.
In general, how many people with disabilities in Georgia have achieved employment through Vocational Rehabilitation?
I believe that the number of successful employment outcomes last year was between 4,000 and 5,000. That is a good number, but I want us to do better than that. Wouldn't it be great, if every Georgian with a disability who wanted a job could find a job and have a meaningful career? Even though I believe that the best vocational rehabilitation occurs one person at a time, I want this new agency to show increasing numbers of successful outcomes year after year.
Are there any programs or resources that help with supported employment in Georgia?
In our visioning sessions around the State, there were a lot of comments about the success of supported employment, and at the same time, the difficulties with supported employment and the lack of supported employment opportunities and supported employment providers. Supported employment has been shown to be very effective because of the ongoing support for the duration of the job, but it is also cost-prohibitive because of that same ongoing support, which is why there are so few providers of supported employment. One of my objectives for this coming year will be to take a serious look at how the new agency can increase supported employment opportunities across the State. If something works, I certainly would like for us to do more of it.
* To see the full interviews with Commissioner Sharon Lewis, Commissioner Frank Berry and Executive Director Greg Schmieg, please visit http://gcdd.org/blogs/gcdd-blog/2384-employment-basedinterviews-with-national-astate-level-leaders-.html.