Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Get A Job?

I’m kind of a numbers guy when it comes to grabbing attention, and knowing that employment for people with disabilities is in the media this month, I find some stats can be misleading and overwhelming:
  • The annual unemployment rate for people with disabilities has been in double digits since 2009. 
  • The monthly jobless rate among this group was 10.4% as recently as July 2015, significantly higher than the 5.4% unemployment rate for those without disabilities. 
  • The labor force participation rate (the percentage of individuals who either work or are looking for work) among individuals with disabilities was 20% this past July, as compared to 69% for individuals without disabilities. And I can imagine that this statistic is much smaller than 20% for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD). 
  • And perhaps the least telling of all: 85% of people with I/DD who are of working age are not currently employed. One must ask – are people even encouraged to consider employment? 
Those of you who know my background know that I spent a great deal of my career in supported employment for individuals with I/DD. I consider myself a strong advocate for employment among the population we serve. Some of the greatest experiences I have had in my career, and some of my fondest memories, arose from that moment when an individual with intellectual disabilities got his or her first paying job. It was always a happy occasion, and why not? Everybody won. The employer had a reliable and dedicated worker. The parents were able to see their child become an engaged and contributing member of the community. And the person getting the job? They were finally able to answer the question of “What do you do?’ with pride.

During the 1980s and 1990s, when my work focused on supported employment, Imagine! was an unparalleled leader in the field of finding and securing jobs for people with I/DD. Unfortunately, rules and regulations become more and more onerous, incentives to build natural supports were eliminated for providers, and as time went on the drive and incentive for an employment-first approach to services were crushed.

So I take no joy in seeing the statistics above (even if in some cases the numbers are misleading), and I join others in advocating for a systems change that is centered on the premise that all citizens, including individuals with significant disabilities, are capable of full participation in integrated employment and community life. However, I am in disagreement with some of my fellow advocates as to how we achieve results. In this case, results are meaningful work.

Some are asking for more resources for organizations that facilitate supported employment - more funding for training, more counselors/case managers, that sort of thing. Is it possible we’re pointing the finger the wrong way when trying to solve this problem? Maybe we need to ask a few questions first.

Questions such as:

Are the support teams of the individuals we serve really thinking employment first when determining the individual’s service path? I’m not sure they are – including families, case managers, and the individuals themselves. When fewer than 20% are either working or looking for work, one has to ask the question, “If you are not looking to work, how do you complete your plan as a contributing member of the community?” Let me give you some stats that demonstrate why this question is so pertinent. In 2004, Imagine! conducted a survey of family members and service providers about supported employment. One of the questions asked in that survey was if respondents agreed with the statement “all people with developmental disabilities are employable in some capacity.” Only 49% of providers and 46% of parents agreed. Right there I see a big challenge. If parents and providers don’t even agree that all individuals with intellectual disabilities are employable, then more resources to organizations seeking employment for those individuals won’t solve anything. We need to change that mindset (and yes, I know the survey is more than ten years old, but I’d be willing to bet those percentages could be even higher today).

Are more resources for organizations that facilitate supported employment the answer? I’m not convinced they are. Maybe we need to focus more on supporting employers (and I don’t mean through tax breaks). What would happen if we simply pay businesses directly if they hire people with I/DD? (By the way – this has been tried and tested positive). Would portions of our struggling support system go away? Would that be a bad thing? My experience with supported employment during the heydays of the 80s and 90s taught me that most employers can figure out how to make it work with employees with disabilities if they are just given some simple tools and support. It is true that supported employment has always been poorly funded, but even so, we used to be much more successful at it. I’m not sure more funding and support for administrating the programs is the answer. The funding would likely come attached to more costly rules and regulation.

I’m not saying I have all the answers. But I do have some questions that I believe are worth asking.

Then again, what do I know?

PS – while pondering the questions above, enjoy this video from our CORE/Labor Source team about the benefits to employers of participating in supported employment programs.

Can’t see the video? Click here.

1 comment:

  1. Great article Mark. I appreciate that you looked at the data and the root causes from a different angle than is usually discussed.