Something momentous occurred in Pennsylvania a few weeks ago. No, it wasn’t the budget passage, although that was very important, too. As part of the celebration of Intellectual Disability Awareness Month, on March 10 Gov. Tom Wolf signed an executive order establishing an “employment first” policy for adults with disabilities in Pennsylvania
With “employment first,” competitive, integrated employment in the community is not only the preferred option, but the ultimate goal for people with disabilities. Wolf’s actions are in line with a critical priority from the U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), that calls on states to invest in systems that increase these opportunities. This mandate reflects growing support for a national movement centered on the premise that all citizens, including individuals with significant disabilities, are capable of full participation in integrated employment and community life.
Recall that before the 1970s, the majority of adults with intellectual disabilities were confined to institutions. Few people, if any, believed these individuals could live in the community, let alone be employed. Pennsylvania, with Erie’s Gertrude Barber in the forefront, led the charge to being adults out of institutions and back into the community.
However, living in the community did not necessarily mean having jobs that are completely integrated into the community. Most adults attend programs that emphasize activities to develop daily living skills, while others are in pre-vocational training programs.
The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014 created greater emphasis on the concept of supported employment that focuses on training individuals on the job with a job coach, helping to ensure success in the position.
In truth, this approach has been used with great success since 1986 at the Barber National Institute, demonstrating that adults with disabilities can indeed be valued, dedicated members of the competitive workforce. Over the past 30 years, the Barber National Institute has placed more than 500 adults with disabilities in jobs with local employers, including in food service, housekeeping, light manufacturing, retail and other industries.
On a national level, research tells us that every dollar spent on supported employment leads to a return of $1.46 for society. So we should not be surprised that supported employment is successful.
Yet, statistics show there is still much work to do. Unfortunately, only 20 percent of Pennsylvanians with a disability participate in the workforce, compared with 70 percent of people in the community at large.
How does being an employment first state affect us all? As we celebrate Autism Awareness Month in April, consider that approximately 50,000 adolescents with autism spectrum disorder turn 18 each year in the U.S. Without employment opportunities, these young people will be idly sitting at home, and yet they have the abilities to be doing so much more.
To reverse this situation, we have to establish a system in which training, also known as transition planning, occurs during high school if these students are to move ahead to the world of work upon graduation. This training begins with community work experiences, giving students a chance to experience the workforce, learn what they like and dislike, and interact socially with co-workers.
Being an employment first state is about believing that individuals with disabilities should have the opportunity to work alongside those without disabilities, giving them a fully integrated, and competitive, work experience, including equal wages and benefits. As an employment first state, the focus and the priorities of services will significantly change.
But in order to achieve these ambitious goals, it’s up to the community to embrace them. We need more employers who are willing to say, “Yes, I support employment first and I will offer job opportunities.”
I believe if any community in Pennsylvania — or the nation — can be successful, it is Erie.
Often, we don’t embrace what we don’t understand. Now, as we observe Autism Awareness Month, my hope in writing is to help the Erie community understand, and in turn embrace, this important initiative. We can be a community that supports one another and show that Erie, once again, is a leader in this culture change.