A Bureau of Labor Statistics Jobs Report indicated an employment rate of less than 26% for people with disabilities, a decrease of 4.5% over the last year. As this report was released during National Disability Employment Awareness Month, it is a unique opportunity to discuss avenues to promote disability employment.
According to the Department of Education, post-secondary education can decrease the likelihood of unemployment and increase earning power. Several years ago, the Administration for Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities supported the growth of numerous post-secondary education programs for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Next Steps, a post-secondary program at Vanderbilt University is equipping students with intellectual and developmental disabilities to enter the workforce by providing individualized programs of study in education, social skills and vocational training. Programs like Next Steps are empowering students to access employment opportunities across the country.
This fall, Next Step students with disabilities had the opportunity to ask ACL staff about employment issues that will impact their futures.
Student Connor Dolan asked a simple yet critical question, “How do you help people with disabilities find a job?”
Independent Living Administration Acting Director Jamie Kendall said that work experience and education are helpful ways to explore future interests, build skill sets, and increase employment opportunities. “Whether you’re a person with a disability, or a person without a disability, a part of finding a job … is having the right skills to be able to do the job.”
AoD Commissioner Aaron Bishop and Administration on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AIDD) Office of Innovation Director Ophelia McLain Mclain noted that ACL funds many programs, including the funding that laid the foundation for Next Steps.
“We help organizations get partners together to speak about what is going on within their own states, like here in Tennessee, so that they can do what is best for the local community and see how best to increase employment for persons with disabilities,“ said Mclain.
ACL also offers internship opportunities for high school and college students.
“We think it’s important to provide that direct exposure and to encourage opportunities for people to try out different jobs, so they can get a good feel for what they like to do and what they don’t like to do,” said Bishop.
Like work experience, college can also increase employment opportunities by providing students with a greater understanding of themselves, their interests, and potential career paths. Student John Moore asked the group what was exciting about people with disabilities going to college. “You get to see what you can do and be,” AIDD Deputy Director Johnson responded, “and you are a part of a campus community of other people who are learning just as you are.”
Whether attending college, entering a vocational training program, or joining the workforce, it is important for students and potential employees to know how to advocate. Student Bryshawn Jemison asked for advice on how people with disabilities should fight for their rights. The federal disability leaders highlighted the importance of advocacy and working with others to reach a common goal of understanding.
Increased post-secondary education opportunities and self-advocacy are key to addressing the large employment gap between people with and without disabilities. Next Steps students and other proactive youth are emerging into adulthood and employment and will lead the way towards closing this gap.