When providers, agencies, educators, nonprofit organization and government staff leaders gathered for an April 22-23 conference in Salem, Oregon, Lisa Mills PhD spoke on the national movement to reframe and “move to the front burner” the approaches, policies and practices that States are taking at delivering services to those with intellectual and developmental disabilities across the Nation.
United States Senator Tom Harkin, introduced the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990. For nearly four decades he has lead the way for these changes and the rights of people with developmental disabilities and has been noted for his significant contributions to the way we provide supports and address the needs for these members of our national community. Particularly when it comes to how this population is welcomed into the labor market, Senator Harkin has been an advocate for Employment First policies.
“We must ensure the prioritization of funding and practices that promote, encourage, and incentivize services and supports that lead to integrated employment outcomes,” Harkin is quoted as saying. In his July 2012 report titled: Unfinished Business: Making Employment of people with Disabilities a National Priority, Sen. Harkin calls for, “public and private sector employers to set goals for boosting disability employment, greater opportunities for entrepreneurs with disabilities, improved services to young people with disabilities that can lead to better employment outcomes after graduation, and bipartisan reforms to the largest disability entitlement programs so that they consistently support the efforts of people with disabilities to achieve success in the labor market and become part of the middle class.”
“As the country celebrated the 20th anniversary of the ADA in 2010, President Obama signed an executive order directing the executive branch of the federal government to hire an additional 100,000 federal workers with disabilities by 2015. More recently, in December of 2011, the U.S. Department of Labor issued a new proposed rule calling on federal contractors to take steps to ensure that at least 7 percent of their workforces are made up of people with disabilities. Both of these initiatives have the potential to drive a significant increase in disability employment over the next several years.”
Of course, the challenge for those with a broad spectrum of disabilities remains the way those without disabilities view them, accept them into their community and workplace settings and what to expect from them as co-members of the workforce. When the definition of “disability” was written in the late 1950’s, this nation’s expectations of people with disabilities was vastly different then they way they are viewed now. Determinations and federally mandated financial supports for those with disabilities come through four programs: Social Security Disability Insurance, Medicaid and Medicare and Supplemental Security Income. The determinations of eligibility are based on their inability to “engage in substantial gainful activity.” While this has traditionally come to mean the inability of this population to work, thus lowering expectations and the bar for society to receive these people equally and secure their rights to opportunities for meaningful employment.
Sen. Harkin remains convinced that “we must develop and implement bipartisan strategies to modernize these programs in a way that consistently promotes long-term employment and economic self-sufficiency and security without harming millions of current and future beneficiaries and recipients.”
To this end, he plans to introduce bipartisan legislation that will significantly increase the employment of people with disabilities that will:
- help young people with disabilities transition successfully from school to higher education and competitive, integrated employment that can lead to quality careers and economic security;
- help disability-owned businesses compete effectively for contracts within all levels of government and the private sector;
- create incentives for States to develop and test new models of providing income support, rewarding work and offering long-term services and supports that will better enable people with disabilities to live in the community, work and earn to their full potential, and remain employed after the onset of a disability; and
- encourage saving and asset development for people with disabilities so that they can become more economically secure and join the middle class.
Lisa Mills PhD is currently the Public Policy Chair for TASH, Senior Technical Advisor for the Coalition to Promote Self-Determination (CPSD) and a Senior Consultant with Marc Gold & Associates. Mills has worked in the field of intellectual/developmental disabilities for 23 years. Her work on integrated employment spans the last 12 years, beginning with grassroots efforts as part of her role supporting the People First self-advocacy movement and culminating in extensive work over the last seven years with state Medicaid and VR agencies on a broad range of systems change strategies to support the expansion of integrated competitive employment for youth and adults with I/DD. In 2006, Mills authored a widely read report, entitled Revitalizing Integrated Employment, which documented nationwide best and emerging practices to support increased participation by people with I/DD in integrated employment.
Citing an April 2013 UMass-Boston study, Dr. Mills presented that there are 35 States that currently have Employment First Initiatives. Of these, “23 states have some type of official Employment First policy. 8 have passed legislation, 15 have a policy directive, Executive Order, or similar official policy statement. 9 of these 23 states have policies that are cross-disability and 14 focus exclusively on individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.” Governor Kitzhaber of Oregon has taken a firm stand in support of these policies with his Executive Order 13-04.
In July, 2012, Governor Markell of Deleware became the Chair of the National Governor’s Association and declared that employing people with disabilities is his “flagship initiative.”
At a September 2012 briefing with the Disability Community in Washington, the goals adopted by the NGA are: “To educate both private sector and public sector employers about employing and accommodating people with disabilities in the workplace and the benefits of doing so; to support state governments in joining with business partners to develop blueprints to promote the hiring and retention of individuals with disabilities in integrated employment in both the public and private sectors; and to establish public-private partnerships to build out those blueprints and increase employment of individuals with disabilities.”
Among the questions Dr. Mills offered at the Salem conference were:”What are the best practices of employment? What is our new definition of ‘working’? Who is the leadership of those advocating on behalf of those with disabilities and, therefore, who do we follow in this quest for truly integrated employment? and, most importantly, how do we get the help needed? ”
With Obama Administration calling for an ambitious “7% of the workforce to be individuals with disabilities by 2015,” thus requiring federal contractors to promote employment opportunities. Is a “good faith effort” enough at this critical time? Mills further asks, “What is the ‘real problem’?” “Is it business resistance or the need for business to ‘be in the driver’s seat’? Is it people with disabilities choosing something else or the system creating a belief and presumption within them that integrated employment isn’t their choice? Or, more pointedly, is it our own fear of raising expectations in the people we support?” And beyond those questions, Dr. Mills left those gathered with as many questions as there are answers to these challenges and changes. She closed asking,” is what holds us up the concern that we lack the sustained, tenacious leadership that is necessary to solve such a complex problem coupled with our fear of change and inability to imagine the goal we have set before us as a reality?”
Editor’s Note: What are your impressions, thoughts and opinions about this new article? How does this touch your life? …your work ?… you or your family circumstances?