Employment for People with Disabilities in the United States Remains Dismal

This is a cross-post from the Disability and Human Rights blog.

Although employment is a right guaranteed by the UN CRPD and is a building block for inclusion, income, access to resources, health and freedom, it remains an out-of-reach goal for the majority of people with significant disabilities around the world. And, it has not improved since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the US twenty years ago. The US National Council on Disability revealed that the difference in labor market activity rate between those employed with no disabilities versus those with disabilities is large at 57.4% in 2009 and has grown significantly since the passage of the ADA. This report can be found here. Similarly, a 2010 Kessler Foundation/National Organization on Disability study surveyed over 2,000 people with disabilities and no disability across the US. Findings revealed that employment still remains the largest gap between the two groups. A copy of this report can be found here.

Many different goals and strategies across the nation have been introduced to help promote employment among people with disabilities to mitigate this gap, including:

  • Integrated employment- paid work alongside others with no disability in a community, non-segregated setting.
  • Competitive employment – self-employment or work in an integrated setting that is performed on a full or part-time basis that is at least equal to the higher of the federal or state minimum wage.
  • Supported Employment – individualized supervision on the job according to the individual’s abilities. A preferred option is on-the-job assistance and role modeling by peers, supervisors and colleagues, thus there is no differential treatment based on disability. Traditional formal support can be offered as well by state and federally funded job coaches who provide assistance and training to workers with disabilities on the job.
  • Customized Employment –  the employer focuses on the discrete contributions of the individual in relation to the employer’s specific needs and crafts a position accordingly. This option leads to competitive employment, but provides an advantage to job seekers who struggle in the competitive job seeking process.
Although community rehabilitation providers have demonstrated that the last two strategies of supported and customized employment lead to successful hiring and retention among individuals with disabilities, national averages reveal that funding has declined in these areas. Further, many policy and funding disincentives still exist that discourage people with disabilities from seeking integrated employment.
One example of this disincentive is the continued existence of facility-based employment, or sheltered workshops. Sheltered employment is assembly-line type of work offered to people with disabilities in a segregated setting. Participants in these settings are usually paid less than minimum wage. Critics have argued that they are expensive to operate, participants are exploited and remain in poverty, and it directly contradicts the ADA. (For a copy of this report, click here).
Yet, the federal government continues to spend four times more money on segregated adult day programs and sheltered workshops than on supported employment options that can lead to inclusive employment. In fact, only 2% of the costs of the entire US disability system are spent on programs that provide employment services. As a result, most people are unaware that 3 out of 4 people with significant disabilities spend their days in sheltered workshops.
And to make matters worse, the National Survey of Day and Employment Programs in 2009 report that nationally supported employment has been on the decline since the mid 1990’s, and the percentage of those receiving integrated employment as a whole greatly fluctuates between states –  ranging from 4% in Arkansas to 88% in Washington. For a copy of this article, click here.
There is hope, however. Employment First initiatives have spread across many states to advance the goal of integrated, competitive employment. According to the former Assistant Secretary of the Office on Disability Employment Policy, Neil Romano:

“Several states have moved forward to implement policies that focus on integrated, community-based employment earning at or above the minimum wage as the first option for individuals with intellectual and other developmental disabilities. Using these ‘employment first’ policies, states are tapping the skills and contributions of these individuals to match employer demand for a reliable, productive workforce through customized employment opportunities. In these employment first states, sheltered employment with sub-minimum wages and non-work ‘day activities’ are no longer acceptable employment outcomes. (US Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy Memo, January 15, 2009)

Over 25 states have some type of Employment First initiative, and at least 14 of them have it codified in legislation or policy. In 2007, Vermont was the first state to discontinue state funding for sheltered workshops, and Washington State aligned their Employment First policy by adopting “Pathways to Employment.” This policy allows for individual choice in employment options and gives everyone the opportunity to pursue competitive employment, regardless of disability.  With these values codified into state policies, Washington has reported a 72% employment rate for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities ID/DD). Other top tier states that tout a competitive employment rate of more than 40% of those with ID/DD were: Oklahoma, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut and New Mexico.

This national call for integrated, competitive employment is also being echoed in the business community. The U.S. Business Leadership Network (BLN) is a national disability organization representing over 5,000 employers, including small businesses and corporations. Its goal is to assist in career preparation and employment of people with disabilities, improve customer experiences for people with disabilities, and promote the certification and growth of disability-owned business. There are 60 affiliates of BLN spread across the US, and membership is growing. With the continued push of Employment First initiatives across the country and the leadership of businesses in hiring efforts, employment rates may improve; but unless spending priorities match legal mandates, the improvement will be slight, if at all. Thus, as the old adage goes…it is time that government leaders put their money where their mouth is.

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Filed under Disability, employment, exclusion, job opportunities, UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

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