Feature Story in Fall MAD 2011- Integrated Employment Means Real Jobs and Real Wages

No person should be denied the opportunity to have a real job in the community based on their disability. Basic rights to a fulfilling life, contributing to the community and a good source of employees for businesses are all part of a growing “integrated employment” movement that is producing real jobs and real wages for people with disabilities.

The integrated employment movement focuses on integrating and supporting people with disabilities in regular jobs in the community where they can interact with their peers without disabilities, be included and ensure that no one receives subminimum wages. Why should people with disabilities be separated and not offered the same opportunities to train and work in the same places as every other person in society?

Right now there is creative progress taking place that is working toward moving away from sheltered workshops that create a great divide between people with and without disabilities in the workforce and making efforts to offer customized employment that provide the supports needed for people with disabilities to have a job in their community.

Chris and Marty Hunnicutt have dreams for their son Christopher. They want him to have the same career opportunities that everyone has and to be known for his capabilities and contributions – not his disability. Hunnicutt hopes the disability community’s movement toward integrated employment for people with developmental disabilities will open new doors for his son, who has Down syndrome.

Christopher, 23, is a graduate of the Kennesaw State University Academy for Inclusive Learning, a two-year program for students with developmental disabilities that offers a curriculum in both academics and job skills. In his father’s opinion, the inclusive learning program and Employment First Georgia are bright stars in post-secondary education and employment programs for people with disabilities. Combined, these programs are bringing a different perspective to training young people for the future, which centers around integrated employment, customized jobs and fair wages for people with disabilities in today’s job market.

Christopher works at a grocery store, but he has dreams of helping others in the field of ministry or criminal justice. And, he has a broad range of interests from equestrian activities to martial arts and a long list of friends helping him on his path to employment. “He’s got a wonderfully full life,” said his father. “I want his life to include work in a vocation that is meaningful so he can contribute to the world and people around him.”

The program advocates for integrated employment, which is seen as more valued than non-employment, segregated employment, sheltered workshops or day centers for most people with disabilities.

Customized Employment
Christopher and his parents work with a customized employment team at Employment First Georgia (EFG), a program that helps people with disabilities overcome significant barriers to employment. For people with disabilities, becoming successful in a job adds real value to their lives and their communities. The program advocates for integrated employment, which is more valued than non-employment, segregated employment, sheltered workshops or day centers for most people with disabilities.

Nancy Brooks-Lane, director of Employment First Georgia, said her organization shows people with developmental disabilities what is now possible in today’s workplace and how to realize those possibilities through customized employment.

Christopher Hunnicutt works with a team of coaches that includes his parents, Employment First staff and business and community leaders. One of his coaches, Christopher Coleman, has cerebral palsy. Coleman, the founder of Empowered Ministries, provides peer support as well as advice as a successful business owner who is known as an author and motivational speaker.

Brooks-Lane said part of the customized employment process is to determine how the person does in a work setting. She observed Christopher at the grocery where he works and talked to his supervisors, which gave her a picture of his strengths and skills. One of the techniques being used to support prospective employees is the use of video resumes. Brooks-Lane said some people with developmental disabilities don’t do well in an interview, and a video can help show a person’s attributes and abilities.

And, she explained, tests for people with disabilities used to focus on what a person could not do. Today, the focus is on learning what the person wants to do and can do through customized employment and vocational assessment.

By tailoring the job to fit a person’s interests, desires and abilities, customized employment can effectively move a person from being under-employed or unemployed to finding fulfilling work and being a valued member of their community.

“There is a place for everybody in the community. And communities are much stronger when everyone is working,” Brooks-Lane said. “We are doing creative work and making a difference. People’s lives are changing.”

Across the Country
There are about 37 states that have employment first initiatives including Employment First Georgia, which started four years ago. Combined, these initiatives are making great strides in training and supporting people with disabilities in search of meaningful work. Brooks-Lane is part of a national consortium that advocates changes in employment for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

Michael Smull with the Learning Community for  Person Centered Practices in Maryland, said Georgia has great potential to be a leader in moving people
toward integrated employment. He credits state leadership and collaborative efforts with making positive changes.

Twenty-two years ago, Smull and Susan Burke-Harrison developed a program to help people who had been in institutions get started and adjust to moving back into their communities. His person-centered plan focuses on the individual first in the life-planning process and has become a standard practice among those working with people with disabilities.

“It’s not a matter of knowing how to do this, but taking the knowledge that is there and applying it,” Smull said. “Part of what we have to say to policymakers is that the research is clear. Employment is cheaper in the long run and produces better outcomes for people with disabilities.”

Real Wages

In addition to customized employment, a number of advocacy groups around the country are supporting community-based employment, and at the same time, demanding minimum or above minimum wages or real wages for workers with disabilities. Advancing Employment Connecting People in Maryland is one of many organizations advocating inclusion of people with disabilities in the workplace that is also calling for a complete phaseout of subminimum wage pay for people with disabilities by 2014.

And for others, more jobs for people with disabilities is the focal point. The Alliance for Full Participation is made up of 14 national organizations working together to improve life for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and they have set a goal of doubling employment for people with disabilities by 2015.

If these programs reach their goals in promoting work in an integrated community setting at competitive wages, job prospects for people with disabilities will continue improving as the paradigm for employment shifts in Georgia and around the country. More states are jumping on board.

Pennsylvania was the first state to prioritize employment for individuals with developmental disabilities starting in 1990, and Georgia was also at the forefront of improving employment opportunities in the 80s and 90s.

Several state entities in Georgia including the Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) Services, Developmental Disabilities Services and GCDD collaborated on a Georgia Federal Partnerships 2000 grant that focused on providing training and technical assistance to employers and provider organizations. The statewide project aimed to expand on employment opportunities for people with disabilities outside of the food and cleaning industry and move in to the manufacturing market.

More recently, the State of Washington was the first to implement an employment first policy in 2006, which has a goal of doubling the number of state workers with disabilities to 6,000 by 2015.

For supported employment in 2011, Kansas passed legislation establishing a state policy of employment first for all people with disabilities, and New Hampshire signed a law this year authorizing the labor commissioner to establish a practical experience/training program for individuals with disabilities.

Although states are making changes in the employment practice for people with developmental disabilities, the number of persons with disabilities in the workforce is far below that of people without a disability.

At a Senate health, education, labor and pensions hearing in Washington, DC, Sept. 15, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-IA, said the shockingly low participation of people with disabilities in the workforce has to change. Harkin showed his support by acting as the chair at the meeting on job creation for Americans with disabilities. Ruby Moore, executive director of the Georgia Advocacy Office, was one of eight advocates who testified at the meeting.

Harkin reported that two-thirds of the 15 million people with significant disabilities in this country aren’t working. The estimated 60 to 66% of unemployed persons with disabilities compares to just above 9% for people without a disability, and the number of workers with disabilities who left employment last year was 10 times higher than for other workers.

“We need to take action and change the trend,” Harkin said at the hearing. “I might go so far to say this is gross discrimination and that is unacceptable.” The Senator said the goal is to increase the number of people with disabilities in the workforce from 4.9 million to 6 million by 2015.

At the hearing, which is one in a series throughout the year to explore the employment issue, Harkin said that sheltered workshops have been the default position for people with disabilities for too long and, “I want to change that default to integrated, supported employment.”

Ruby Moore, who also spoke, said she is not dismissive of services that have existed for a long time, but some of the vocational rehab efforts that worked 70 years ago do not hold right today. It is time to move beyond sheltered workshops and sub-minimum wages for those with disabilities who work.

“We’ve learned after years of research what makes people sparkle and shine,” Moore said. “Segregation takes away choices. We don’t need to create special places for people with disabilities. We need to make things better and to help people have a piece of the American pie.”

Here in Georgia

Christine Fleming, a manager with the Department of Labor (DOL) vocational rehab program said game-changing modifications are on the way in Georgia. For example, a collaborative effort among state agencies to work together to find more opportunities in the workplace for people with disabilities is a step toward changing the mindset of how to approach the employment issue. Creating partnerships also helps prevent duplication and fragmenting of services.

The agencies that are working together include the Georgia Advocacy Office (GAO), the Georgia Department of Education, the Institute on Human Development and Disabilities (IHDD), the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities (GCDD), the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD), the Georgia Department of Labor (DOL) Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) and the Work Force Investment Board.

Doug Crandell, who heads customized employment at the IHDD at the University of Georgia, worked with the Georgia Partnership for Employment Change on a grant* to boost access to employment options for high school students. He submitted the grant on Aug. 15, 2011 to the Administration on Developmental Disabilities under its Projects of National Significance, ad six states will receive funding.

* This grant was not selected for funding. However, the principles of this work still remain the focus of the organizations involved.

Georgia advocates plan to use the funding to expand a pilot project at four high schools to other counties in the State. The program, which is already in place in Hall County, Whitfield County, Walton County and Clarke County high schools, prepares students with disabilities for employment. The first group will graduate in 2012.

Byron Sartin, DBHDD employment specialist, said the Discovering Jobs: Linking Discovery to Employment for Youth program helps youth and young adults transition to competitive employment before they graduate. “We want students to be gainfully employed once they leave high school,” Sartin said. “Anyone who wants to work can with the right support.”

The program is a collaborative effort that helps individual students go through the discovery process to learn his or her needs, wants and desires which will lead to post-secondary education or an employment plan. Advocates believe preparing students for employment based on their interests and skills will result in better outcomes for work in the community as adults.

Crandell said the goal is to create a comprehensive systems change aimed at augmenting employment and economic self-sufficiency of youth and young adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

According to the abstract Crandell wrote for the grant, the project will track local and state systems’ efforts, which will include blended funding, increased access to customized employment and the number of educators, professionals, providers and school systems trained in best-practice employment supports.

There are other state partnerships that are making it easier for individuals with developmental disabilities to work in the community as well. Work Works for All: the South Georgia Employment Collaborative, the Emory University Autism Center and Employment First Georgia have teamed up to develop a partnership for individuals with autism or who are on the autism spectrum.

According to Crandell, a National Disability Rights Network report, “Segregated and Exploited” has fueled the debate on employment and pay. The 50-page report urges state and federal changes to end segregated employment and sub-minimum wages for people with disabilities.

“There has been a ground swell in the last 16 months among advocates, individuals and their families that support integrated employment,” Crandell said. “The time for workshops and work for sub-minimum wages has passed.

”In spite of a depressed federal budget and economy, Crandell says it should not hurt the movement toward integrated employment. He said there is a return on the investment when people work and pay taxes, and there are employers who need the skills workers with disabilities have to offer.

For example, a South Georgia program in Tifton has been assisting adults who have disabilities to become employed since 1983.

Marion Curry, program director of Diversified Enterprises, declares that the program’s track record proves the success of employment first. She says their program uses employment as the first option to match the needs of clients with employers in the community. Many of their clients work for the City of Tifton and Tift County, while others work for private business.

“People know who they are by where they work and what they do,” Curry said. “Our approach is to match people’s skills with employers to find a niche that works. It is challenging in this economy, but we continue to place people in jobs with typical wages.”

This concept seems to be working, as many of the people have moved off disability income and are receiving insurance and benefits from their employers. A few have even worked in the community long enough to retire.

Michael Wright has worked for the Tift County Road Department since 2000. Angela Stubbins has worked at the City of Tifton’s maintenance complex since 1995. She moved off disability income and has health insurance and benefits through work. Stubbins made it through job layoffs this year and Curry said she is valued among co-workers.

Diversified staff member Barbara Lumpkin said Paula Clark is also an example of success in supported employment. Clark, who suffered a severe brain injury when she was 16 years old, has been in workshop settings and was unemployed for more than a year after a move to Tifton with her family. After getting to know Clark, Lumpkin learned that she liked to work on her own and work with her hands.

After finding a potential job in laundry that matched her interests, Lumpkin decided to work in the laundry before Clark took on the job. She found the work exhausting and the system of getting clean laundry to the right person difficult. The employer was willing to
let Lumpkin devise an easier system for sorting, hanging and delivering the clothes that allows Clark to be successful at the job.

This kind of customization, finding a job or position that works with both the employer and employee, is part of the integrated employment process. Today, Clark tells Lumpkin she enjoys working with Alzheimer patients in a nursing home where she works in the laundry.

“She loves to be able to do this because she was told she couldn’t,” Lumpkin said. “It is not an easy job, but is a good job for her.”

Good Jobs, Good Business

An important part of the employment first initiative is to find employers who recognize the ability and value of workers with disabilities.

Michael Pearson, president of Union Packaging in Yeadon, PA said that 19% of his 70 employees have disabilities. Pearson, who spoke at the Sept. 15 congressional hearing, said it is important to educate employers and managers.

“Small and mid-size businesses can make accommodations that result in employment success for individuals with disabilities,” Pearson said. “This allows us to have a pool of talent, and they come to work ready. I concentrate on what they can do, not what they can’t do.”

Angela Mackie, career outreach coordinator at Walgreen distribution centers in Anderson, SC and Pendergrass, GA said the company’s goal is to have workers with disabilities fill at least 30% of its distribution center workforce. Currently, the larger Anderson facility has 190 workers with disabilities and Pendergrass has 17.

“It is a good business decision and good business sense to hire workers with disabilities,” Mackie said. “We are hiring quality people who just happen to have disabilities.” The former vocational rehab counselor in South Carolina has cerebral palsy.

Mackie said more than 130 companies have gone through a boot camp at Walgreen to encourage hiring workers with disabilities.

National efforts are also part of the employment movement. In 2010, 20 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed, President Obama signed an order for federal agencies to increase employment of people with disabilities, as well as require mandatory training for human resource workers and managers.

There is a bipartisan effort in Congress to reauthorize the Workforce Investment Act to make changes in vocational rehab emphasizing competitive, integrated employment.

“The movement is pushing forward. We have laid the groundwork,” Brooks-Lane said. “There is solid methodology for people with disabilities to get real jobs and to be successful.”