BNA Daily Labor Report
By C. Reilly Larson
At a Sept. 15 Senate committee hearing on boosting the employment rate of people with significant disabilities, witnesses addressed barriers to employment and the need to increase opportunities for customized integrated employment.
“In the last three years, statistics show us that people with disabilities have been leaving the labor force at a rate more than 10 times the rate of the non-disabled population,” Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, said in his opening statement.
“This is unacceptable. I might even go so far as to say I think this is gross discrimination. We need to take action to change this trend,” he said.
Disability Employment Initiative Planned
Harkin said he is working with Ranking Member Sen. Michael Enzi (R-Wyo.) and other committee members to use this and other hearings as part of a multiyear disability employment initiative.
“My goal is to make the policy changes necessary and engage with leaders in the business and disability communities so that the size of the disability workforce will grow from 4.9 million to 6 million by 2015,” Harkin said. He noted that the “U.S. Chamber of Commerce has also set that goal.”
“For purposes of today’s discussion, I am focused on people with the most significant disabilities because they do not always benefit from traditional disability employment strategies,” he said.
Harkin offered a “working definition” of people with the “most significant disabilities” as “people for whom competitive employment has not traditionally occurred, has been interrupted or is intermittent because of the disability, or who, because of the severity of their disability, need intensive or extended support services to work competitively.”
Need to Change Attitudes, Low Expectations
Several witnesses discussed the need for a change in employers’ attitudes regarding people with significant disabilities. “We have to think that everyone can work,” said Julie Petty, former president of Self Advocates Becoming Empowered, a national membership organization for people with disabilities.
“I don’t think the spectrum should be predicated on the old notion people aren’t ready to work,” said Ruby Moore, executive director of the Georgia Advocacy Office. “People are ready to work. And even in this economy, employers have unmet needs,” she added.
Katy Beh Neas, senior vice president of government relations for Easter Seals, emphasized the value of gaining job skills though summer jobs and internships. “We have to give kids the skills that they need to be successful” in the workplace, she said.
“Most of us learn what we like by giving it a shot. That needs to be true for people with disabilities,” Neas continued. “We’d really like to see some leadership from employers to help make those opportunities more available.”
There is “a huge gap between federal policies and what’s actually on the ground” day to day, according to Jonathan Young, chairman of the National Council on Disability.
Although disability employment policy and laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act already are in place, they are “not aspirational,” Moore said. On the ground “we need to hold people to it.”
‘Sheltered’ Workshops Criticized
Most witnesses agreed that customized, integrated employment for people with significant disabilities, as opposed to segregated employment in “sheltered” workshops, should be the goal. Sheltered workshops, or “work centers,” which are typically operated as nonprofit corporations that may receive public subsidies, offer employment only to those with disabilities.
It is a very complicated issue, but “in my view having segregated work settings does not enhance the options for employment for people with disabilities. It restricts the options,” according to Fredric Schroeder, former commissioner of the Education Department’s Rehabilitation Services Administration.
“And I say that because the longer society is allowed to believe that there is a place ‘over there somewhere’ for ‘those people,’ people with disabilities will continue to suffer misunderstanding, which leads to diminished opportunities for integrated employment,” Schroeder said. “I firmly believe in choice, but I do not believe that the majority of people who work in sheltered workshops are there out of choice.” The “basic assumption” should be that “everyone can be in integrated employment,” Harkin said. “It seems to me that we need to make that transition” from sheltered workshops to integrated employment.”
“I do believe there’s a general consensus … among all disability groups that we do want to move more towards more fully integrated employment to the maximum extent possible,” while at the same time recognizing that “we can’t just disrupt lives inordinately overnight” and uproot people in sheltered employment in efforts to move forward, Harkin said. “But we at least have to start with young people now and give them a new ‘cutting edge.’ ”