How States Are Trying to End the Disability Unemployment Crisis

s.e. smith

Programs that enable a smooth transition from school to the workplace have documented results, as does allowing people to enter the workplace while retaining critically important healthcare benefits. (South Dakota Advocacy Services/ Facebook)

Data in the new­ly released 2016 Dis­abil­i­ty Sta­tis­tics Com­pendi­um are high­light­ing a per­ni­cious, and com­plex, dis­par­i­ty for the dis­abil­i­ty com­mu­ni­ty: unem­ploy­ment. In 2015, less than 35 per­cent of dis­abled Amer­i­cans between 18 – 64 liv­ing in the com­mu­ni­ty were employed, in con­trast with some 76 per­cent of their nondis­abled counterparts.

This is not just a dis­par­i­ty of dis­abled and nondis­abled, though, but also one deter­mined by state of res­i­dence. In Wyoming, for exam­ple, near­ly 60 per­cent of dis­abled peo­ple are employed, while at the oth­er end of the spec­trum, in West Vir­ginia, the dis­abil­i­ty employ­ment rate is around 25 percent.

Under­stand­ing why employ­ment out­comes for dis­abled peo­ple are so wide­ly vari­able is impor­tant because such knowl­edge may con­tribute to a fresh approach to get­ting dis­abled peo­ple who are ready and will­ing to work into ful­fill­ing jobs. 

Offi­cials from South Dako­ta Advo­ca­cy Ser­vices (SDAS), an agency charged with dis­abil­i­ty advo­ca­cy, shed some light on the sub­ject. Their state has a dis­abil­i­ty employ­ment rate of slight­ly more than 50 per­cent, an accom­plish­ment they’re proud of. While the path to get­ting to that num­ber takes work, offi­cials argue, it’s achievable.

South Dako­ta has a lot of things oth­er states could look to,” says Tim Ney­hart, exec­u­tive direc­tor at SDAS.

Offi­cials’ work starts at the high school lev­el. As dis­abled stu­dents get clos­er to grad­u­a­tion, com­mu­ni­ty agen­cies start work­ing with them to pre­pare them for the work­force to ensure they don’t fall through the cracks as they move into adulthood.

Cole Ueck­er, also of SDAS, explains that the goal is inte­grat­ed com­pet­i­tive employ­ment,” with dis­abled peo­ple enter­ing the job mar­ket along­side their nondis­abled peers, instead of being shunt­ed to shel­tered work­shops. Under the shel­tered work­shop mod­el, dis­abled peo­ple are seg­re­gat­ed in facil­i­ties where they com­plete basic, repet­i­tive tasks for low pay — often sub­min­i­mum wage — and don’t achieve auton­o­my and independence.

Dis­abled stu­dents in South Dako­ta are paired with reha­bil­i­ta­tion spe­cial­ists who help them acquire job skills and learn about the pro­grams and ser­vices avail­able to them. To address the ben­e­fits trap” that keeps dis­abled peo­ple unem­ployed because they fear los­ing ser­vices, the state offers Med­ical Assis­tance for Work­ers with Dis­abil­i­ties, a Med­ic­aid buy-in pro­gram that allows them to retain ben­e­fits while working.

Else­where in the coun­try, some areas use job pro­grams like Project SEARCH, which orig­i­nat­ed at Cincin­nati Children’s Hos­pi­tal Med­ical Cen­ter in 1996 when a nurse — frus­trat­ed with high turnover among hos­pi­tal sup­port staff — got the idea of bring­ing in dis­abled peo­ple, pro­vid­ing them with voca­tion­al reha­bil­i­ta­tion at the hos­pi­tal and encour­ag­ing them to enter the work­force. The for­mal­ized pro­gram now has some 3,000 grad­u­ates per year, says Maryellen Das­ton, a pro­gram spe­cial­ist, and a very high suc­cess rate, with par­tic­i­pants in Project SEARCH find­ing employ­ment after the pro­gram at a rate of 77 per­cent in 2015.

Ney­hart and Das­ton echo each oth­er when they talk about get­ting dis­abled peo­ple into the work­force. Both assume that dis­abled peo­ple are capa­ble of work and want to be part of the com­mu­ni­ty. Both pri­or­i­tize inte­grat­ed com­pet­i­tive employ­ment and ear­ly inter­ven­tion to iden­ti­fy needs before peo­ple leave school.

But lots of states have sim­i­lar goals and pro­grams, so why are some states hav­ing such rad­i­cal­ly bet­ter out­comes than others?

One answer lies in demo­graph­ics. South Dako­ta, for exam­ple, is not a high­ly pop­u­lous state, which makes the per­son­al­ized, thought­ful inter­ven­tion need­ed for suc­cess­ful employ­ment pro­grams func­tion­al­ly pos­si­ble. More­over, just 12.5 per­cent of the state’s res­i­dents iden­ti­fy as dis­abled in the Amer­i­can Com­mu­ni­ty Sur­vey. By com­par­i­son, near­ly 20 per­cent of res­i­dents in West Vir­ginia iden­ti­fy as dis­abled. Ney­hart also acknowl­edges that South Dako­ta has a low unem­ploy­ment rate overall.

States with high­er dis­abil­i­ty unem­ploy­ment rates often have a larg­er dis­abled pop­u­la­tion. They also tend to be more pop­u­lous over­all, in addi­tion to more racial­ly diverse. Admin­is­ter­ing effec­tive sup­port pro­grams may be more chal­leng­ing with heav­ier demands on state resources — espe­cial­ly in states strug­gling with pover­ty, like much of the South, where dis­abil­i­ty employ­ment rates are low.

Pro­grams that enable a smooth tran­si­tion from school to the work­place have doc­u­ment­ed results, as does allow­ing peo­ple to enter the work­place while retain­ing crit­i­cal­ly impor­tant health­care ben­e­fits. This may be a chal­lenge of scale, which could be a good thing, because that means it’s a prob­lem with the poten­tial to be solved.

In order to improve, you always have to be look­ing at areas in which the num­bers aren’t as good,” notes Neyhart.

s.e. smith is an essay­ist, jour­nal­ist and activist is on social issues who has writ­ten for The Guardian, Bitch Mag­a­zine, Alter­Net, Jezebel, Salon, the Sun­dance Chan­nel blog, Long­shot Mag­a­zine, Glob­al Com­ment, Think Progress, xoJane, Truthout, Time, Nerve, VICE, The Week, and Repro­duc­tive Health Real­i­ty Check. Fol­low @sesmithwrites.
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