Making Competitive, Integrated Employment a Reality

GCDD interviewed Amy Gonzalez, Project Manager for the Administration on Disabilities (AoD) Disability Employment Technical Assistance, to discuss the ways competitive, integrated employment is becoming a reality for people with disabilities across the country, why employers need to get on board, and what individuals and family members can do to make sure employment comes first.

The true goal is to make sure that we are moving the needle on competitive, integrated employment (CIE). When we talk about CIE we are talking about an individual with a disability who is working for an employer where they have the opportunity to interact with people who do not have disabilities. We’re talking about one person and one job where there’s opportunity for career mobility, upward mobility, increased hours and job flexibility.

What we mean by technical assistance is help. It is working with a grantee who has a specific need or a gap to fill and meeting them where they are; working with them hand in hand to tackle a policy issue or a programmatic issue; or maybe there has been a data analysis about employment trends in the state and the grantee doesn’t know how to utilize that data.

That’s just an example of some of the forms of technical assistance that we offer, but basically it’s just supporting a specific need that the grantee has and how we can work with them to not only address that issue, but take it to scale and focus on sustainability.

Individuals with disabilities are still marginalized and considered a liability to employers, so there’s a lot of work we need to do shifting perspectives and moving the needle in that area.I think that it’s important for stakeholders and the grantee community to understand that we are very approachable, and we are eager to work with them. We are all about collaboration and partnerships, in fact, we have three themes that we focus on in this technical assistance (TA) center. It’s systems change, collaboration and innovation. We really focus on empowering, engaging and educating grantees to help them develop the necessary partnerships and take to scale effective practices for employment.

Unfortunately, there is still a dilemma in the field. The fact is that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities or other disabilities aren’t able to achieve employment. It’s either due to lack of resources, lack of policy development or lack of understanding and belief by employers in the community in general, that people with disabilities are able to contribute at a job and have meaningful employment.

I think that these trends and lack of transportation really impede the ability for people with disabilities to obtain employment. Transportation hands down is a nationwide issue. Maybe county or state governments don’t offer reliable transportation options, or there aren’t enough resources so they’re late for work. We need to do better in identifying reliable, economical transportation options for people with disabilities to get to and from work.

Disability Employment TA Center is a national organization that provides evidence-based training and technical assistance (TA) to the Administration on Disabilities (AoD) grantees aimed at improving competitive, integrated employment (CIE) and economic outcomes for individuals with disabilities across the nation.

So we’ve seen the unemployment rate for people with disabilities substantially higher than the rate for people without disabilities who are seeking employment. I know that Employment First is a national movement and there is a strong push to get people to work and shift out of segregated types of services to CIE.

But overall employment remains low. Individuals with disabilities are still marginalized and considered a liability to employers, so there’s a lot of work we need to do shifting perspectives and moving the needle in that area.

We have seen such a dramatic shift since the pandemic hit the country. I think this gives people with disabilities and employers, an opportunity to tap into an untapped pool of people who are willing, talented and ready to work.

I think this pandemic has really forced businesses to dig deep and identify innovative ways to support employees through this now virtual world. This gives great opportunities for people with disabilities who aren’t sure about working in the community or want to work, but are reserved and need more supports at home. I think the pandemic has definitely caused employers to restructure in ways they never thought of, which gives people with disabilities more opportunities to work from home and have creative work schedules, which potentially may align more with their goals.

I think that the pandemic has caused a big shift in a good way because now that so many people are working virtually, individuals with disabilities have new opportunities to obtain employment at the virtual level.

The most important thing that I’d like the audience to understand is that if there’s any reluctance about hiring a person with a disability, I would suggest that you give that person a chance. I understand that there are concerns, maybe with safety or liability, but there’s data out there to show us that people with disabilities enhance productivity. People with disabilities learn their job correctly and understand safety protocols. I think it’s important to dispel any fears about hiring someone with a disability.

In response to the perception that there are extremely high costs to accommodate someone with a disability in a job opportunity, the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) provides free training and resources to employers who are working to accommodate people with disabilities.

So, the fact that there is skepticism about hiring people with disabilities shouldn’t be there, because employers can get support for passionate, dependable workers and meet some of their productivity goals. There are a few barriers that come to mind, but I definitely want to reiterate the misconceptions and the confusion about what it would take to support a person with a disability on the job.

In addition, I think there is fear of the unknown, not only on behalf of employers, but family members and rightfully so.

Family members don’t want their son or daughter to be mistreated in a job or aren’t sure what that’s going to look like because of the unique support needs that person may have. The other barrier is the fear of the loss of benefits. There are times when that disability check is the only source of revenue for a household and that family is not going to lose that check they depend on.

So, we need more benefits counseling to educate people and their families about what that check is going to look like when they’re working and they’re getting benefits. We need to work closer with employers hand in hand so that we’re broadcasting success stories to show people with disabilities who are successful in CIE.

Then I think that just like we’re doing today, we’re advocating, we’re marketing, and we’re spreading the word about people with disabilities and how they are an asset to employers. It’s going take that collective effort to break these barriers.

We also need a shift in funding. We need a shift in state policymaking, and just like other grantees at GCDD, they are working hand-in-hand with employers. We have started to see a shift, but it takes a village, it really does. When we start to address these barriers on an individual basis and work together with partners, we’ll see the changes needed to help support people with disabilities in CIE.

We need to work closer with employers hand in hand so that we’re broadcasting success stories to show people with disabilities who are successful in CIE.

It is so important to keep families and people with disabilities at the forefront of everything that we do in our work to advance systems change in employment for people with disabilities. Some advice that I have to give is that I know this process is daunting; it’s scary because state systems are complex and their policies aren’t easy to interpret.

My recommendation is to reach out and stay connected to councils, centers for independent living and other grantees who have a wealth of expertise in this area. When you connect with them, you become educated about the options for your family members and how to pursue that path for employment. Don’t be scared, reach out to state systems and grantees so that you’re educated at an early age. Depending on your child’s age, you have this information, so you’re prepared to work on the next steps.

The last tip that I have is that I understand that sometimes all families have heard for years is that their family member can’t do this, they can’t do that, they won’t be able to achieve these goals. My recommendation is to look past that and focus on what your family member can do, focus on their abilities.

Our purpose is to elevate partnerships at the grantee level, to enhance economic stability for people with disabilities, and to increase CIE outcomes for people with disabilities. We are here to help. We are here to work with our stakeholders every step of the way to help in fulfilling those outcomes.

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