October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), a time to celebrate the contributions that individuals with disabilities make to our workforce. AIDD has long recognized the importance of employment expectations and opportunities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD).
In 2010, AIDD began awarding Partnerships in Employment Systems Change (PIE) grants as a new Project of National Significance. The grants prioritize employment for youth and young adults with I/DD. The grants to Alaska, California, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, Tennessee, and Wisconsin focus on establishing partnerships across state and non-profit organizations to improve systems and support competitive, integrated employment outcomes.
Cindy Gruman is a Vice President at the Lewin Group and has led an evaluation of the PIE grants. I asked her about employment and the impact of the grants now that the state project consortiums are in their 4th and 5th years.
What are the most significant ways in which the PIE states have engaged youth and their families?
Early in the project, the PIE consortiums identified engagement as a key focus area. In Iowa, Missouri, and Wisconsin project staff organized Take Your Legislator to Work Day, allowing legislators to visit youth with I/DD at their jobs. In some states, youth with I/DD visited state capitols to meet with legislators and discuss employment issues. California’s Youth Advisory Committee and Wisconsin’s Youth Track provide youth with a voice in the process as well as skills to help them gain and keep a job.
PIE states also used parent surveys, coalitions, and the development of support resources to engage the families of youth with I/DD. For example, Alaska, California, and Tennessee designed surveys to learn more about parental expectations around employment and community involvement. Iowa and Tennessee created coalitions that brought parents and families together to work together on advocacy. And Missouri developed and disseminated Life Course Tools to encourage family members to think about and plan for employment.
What would you say has been the greatest systemic barriers to employment for youth and young adults with I/DD across the states? What strategies are the states implementing to remove these barriers?
The greatest systemic barrier is the lack of awareness about employment opportunities in the community. We heard from the PIE states that many families and employers were not aware of the benefits of hiring youth with I/DD. Other systemic barriers reported by states include a limited understanding of graduation requirements, lack of funding for services and supports, and incentives for sheltered workshops as opposed to integrated employment.
To increase awareness of employment opportunities, PIE states focused on sharing success stories of youth with I/DD working in the community, teaching job skills to youth, and training employers and families on the benefits of employment. In Alaska and Mississippi, PIE consortium members also collaborated with other state agencies to host job fairs that allowed employers to interact directly with youth with I/DD.
What emerging promising practices have you seen in the PIE states?
Early in the project, several states noted that there was no single place to find employment outcomes data for individuals with I/DD in their state. All of the PIE states are developing shared data systems and reports to address this problem. California's consortium, for example, created the State of California Developmental Disabilities System Employment Data Dashboard allowing easy access to employment information and Tennessee’s consortium created the Employment and Disability By the Numbers to provide a snapshot of employment outcomes for Tennesseans with disabilities.
Community Conversations represent another notable emerging promising practice. These community meetings engage various stakeholders in small table discussions The meetings have allowed family members, youth, employers, and community leaders to gather and discuss issues related to employment in their own communities and determine next steps to improve outcomes for individuals with I/DD. Tennessee and Wisconsin were the first two PIE states to hold these meetings and California has also adopted the practice.
How have the PIE consortiums impacted policies and practices in their states?
Through advocacy efforts supported by the PIE consortiums, states have successfully changed policies related to Medicaid rate restructuring, high school graduation requirements, and funding for services and supports in order to advance employment opportunities. PIE consortium members also developed resources to share with state legislators. These education efforts helped pass “Employment First” legislation making integrated employment for people with disabilities the primary objective of all state services in Alaska, California, and Mississippi.
What are some of the most significant outcomes and achievements that have come from the work of the PIE states?
At the state level, agencies are more coordinated. At the individual level, youth and young adults with I/DD are finding jobs and working in the community.
Many of the state agencies participating in PIE are working together to improve service coordination. They are coming together through the consortium, participating in coalition meetings, signing memoranda of understanding. A state consortium member told us, “As a direct result of PIE, the significant changes taking place within the state systems are not proceeding in silos, but rather are discussed openly in terms of how changes in one system may impact other systems.”
As the states enter the final years of the project, PIE consortiums will continue to talk about continuing the work beyond the grant. The relationships formed as part of PIE will be critical to ensuring that the work has lasting impact and increasing the number of youth and young adults with I/DD working in the community.
The overall goal is for people with disabilities to be employed at competitive wages in integrated setting. The theme for this year’s NDEAM is “My Disability is One Part of Who I Am.” At the TenneseeWorks Think Employment! Summit held in September 2015, Kevin Burke, a self-advocate who is successfully employed at Holiday Inn spoke to this important message. Watch a short clip from Kevin’s talk below.