By Sharon Lewis, Principal Deputy, Administration for Community Living (ACL)
Among working-age adults, most of us would likely agree that employment is a critically important part of our lives. Employment gives us a sense of purpose that comes with contributing to something bigger, offers a sense of pride in accomplishment, and for many of us, it is an important part of our identity. Working provides opportunities for social interaction, chances to learn and grow, and exposure to new people and new places. And, of course, it provides income through a paycheck.
Everyone deserves the opportunity to find and enjoy meaningful work. This includes older adults and people with disabilities. When everyone—including people who experience the most difficult barriers to employment—has the chance to contribute, we all benefit. Our businesses and our communities are stronger when we bring together the talents and perspectives of a truly inclusive workforce. Different life experiences forge different ideas, develop different skill sets and enable different approaches to challenges and problem solving. That diversity is an asset to any workplace.
Throughout October, designated Disability Employment Awareness Month, we at ACL join with colleagues, advocates, employers, and people with disabilities across the country to further our society's understanding about the importance of this fundamental right, and to spark new conversations about how we can get more people with disabilities into the workforce.
This year, the official theme for Disability Employment Awareness Month is "Expect. Employ. Empower." This theme aligns perfectly with our belief that all individuals, regardless of disability, have the right to high expectations about employment. We believe that people with disabilities should be employed at competitive wages in integrated community workplaces, alongside people without disabilities, and should be supported in ways that build on each person’s strengths and interests.
We know we have more work to do to advance employment options for people with disabilities. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, less than a fifth of people with disabilities age 16-64 were employed in 2013. For people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, only about 15% of working-age adults supported by state IDD agencies are working in integrated employment.
In addition, many high schools do not include integrated employment as a primary goal in the transition plans of students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. In some cases, sheltered employment is listed as the objective. Yet many of these youth have a different vision for how they want to live their lives. They do not want to participate in day programs or to work for pennies an hour. They want to earn real wages in jobs of their own choosing, save their money, and enjoy the power that comes with having control over their resources. We must do a better job of ensuring they have those opportunities.
ACL is proud to be a part of federal efforts to improve employment expectations and opportunities for people with disabilities. Through initiatives like our Administration on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities' Partnership in Employment Systems Change, our technical assistance collaboration with ODEP, our data analysis and research on employment for people with disabilities, as well as the efforts of our networks across the country, we are working to improve programs and policies to better enable such employment.
Our partners across the Department of Health and Human Services are also working to encourage competitive integrated employment for individuals with significant disabilities. The Center for Medicare and Medicaid’s technical assistance (PDF) efforts and the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration’s Supported Employment Program grants are but two such examples. And, of course, the opportunities created by the Affordable Care Act—improved access, affordability and choice in healthcare coverage—are removing yet another barrier to employment.
Finally, the recently passed Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014 includes multiple provisions that make clear that competitive integrated employment is the preferred outcome that must be supported through federal investment. The law also established a federal advisory committee that is charged with recommending ways to increase competitive, integrated employment for individuals with the most significant disabilities. The committee is also tasked with studying the use, and improving oversight, of programs that allow paying sub-minimum wages to people with disabilities. We look forward to the contributions of this important new advisory panel.
Here at ACL, we know that employment is central to the idea of community living and full participation in all aspects of our society, and we are committed to pursuing policy and program to further improve employment opportunities for people with disabilities. Throughout the month, ACL will continue to highlight efforts to increase expectations, employment, and empowerment for everyone. We hope you will join us!
p.s. We also know there also are many promising things happening at the state and local level. Do you have an example? Please share it with us in the comments below. Your success story may well help spark an idea in another community.