On the job

Norman Perlich, a RISE employee and brother of Advance Leader reporter Sheryl Prentice, works at Pokagon Veterinary Clinic on his first-ever job in the community. He feeds and cares for the animals, a skill he learned growing up on a farm.

KENDALLVILLE — America is supposed to be the land of opportunity, where a person who works hard can succeed in building a secure and independent life. But if you are a person with disabilities, your success may depend on where you live.

The Annual Disability Statistics Compendium published its 2018 annual report earlier this year on employment of people with disabilities. The compendium compiles Census Bureau statistics to get a clear picture of what disability looks like in America today.

North Dakota ranks first in the nation at 56.3% for employment of citizens with disabilities. South Dakota, Utah, Nebraska, Minnesota, Vermont, Kansas, Montana and Wyoming round out the top 10 states with the highest rates of employment for people with disabilities.

Indiana ranks 24th of the 50 states with 38.6% of its people with disabilities employed. Indiana had a total of 477,660 working-age people with disabilities in 2017, the most recent figures available, with 184,343 employed. The state gained 8,964 jobs for people with disabilities over the previous year.

The 10 states with the worst employment rates for people with disabilities are West Virginia (26.1%), Alabama (26.8%), Mississippi (27.6%), Kentucky (30.2%), Arkansas (30.8%), South Carolina 32.6%), Tennessee (33.3%), New Mexico (33.7%), North Carolina (33.8%) and Michigan (33.8%).

States have tackled the barriers to employment for people with disabilities in different ways. Massachusetts has allocated funding for accommodations of employees with disabilities such as technology that help the hearing or visually impaired to use computers or telephones.

Maryland added points to the test scores for job applicants with disabilities. Louisiana created new internship and short-term employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities, and added training for human resource s managers in recruiting and retaining employees with disabilities. Vermont and Minnesota have begun job tryouts for people with disabilities so that employee and employer can see if a job is a good fit for both.

Historically, people with disabilities and their families have been steered toward sheltered workshops for services and employment. The sheltered workshop concept was based on society’s belief that people with disabilities were unemployable and should be segregated from non-disabled workers. Sheltered workshop employees earn a subminimum wage for their work, usually assembly or packaging tasks.

Language often guides change, and terminology matters. Society and public policy has dramatically shifted to the belief that individuals with disabilities should be fully integrated into the services, programs, activities, workplaces and settings that best fit their needs, earning competitive wages alongside non-disabled workers.

The term “sheltered workshop” is considered outdated now in both the United States and the United Kingdom, and other countries are moving in that direction as well.

Changes in society’s attitudes and public policy often come slowly, however. State leaders have embraced inclusive programs, services and vocational rehabilitation at varying rates, but gaps remain for people with disabilities.

Philip Kahn-Pauli is the policy and practices director of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for people with disabilities. He works with state leaders to develop solutions for people with disabilities, support job seekers with disabilities and open pathways into the workforce.

“There are specific things state leaders can do to recruit, hire and retain talented employees with disabilities. There are other things employers can do if they want the most talented and diverse workforce they can,” Kahn-Pauli said in an email.

Kahn-Pauli said he always talks about making the state government a model employer for people with disabilities.

“For example, state leaders can create a non-competitive employment preference for targeted disabilities (as the federal government does) or offer more probationary opportunities to see if an employee with a disability is a good fit for a given job,” Kahn-Pauli said

Kahn-Pauli said employers and business leaders need to make public commitments to include people with disabilities in any existing diversity and inclusion initiatives. Human resources managers should collaborate closely with their state vocational rehabilitation agency to seek employees with disabilities.

“Another thing that employers can do is to organize a ‘self-identification’ campaign for their workforce,” Kahn-Pauli said. “Such a campaign encourages folks to disclose any disabilities that they might have.”

Kahn-Pauli believes there is considerable opportunity to align workforce training programs with employer talent needs.

“Employers know the types of jobs they need to fill or the skills they need to hire for,” he said. “State leaders have federal money, through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act and Department of Labor, to invest in both training programs for now and to anticipate where job growth is going to happen in the near future. Making disability employment a priority in these types of public-private partnerships is critical.”

The pathway to competitive wages for people with disabilities is strewn with boulders as well. Many people with disabilities receive Supplemental Security Income, known as SSI, as s safety net for food, clothing and shelter.

SSI is funded by federal tax revenues and has earning limits. Earning limits force people with disabilities who want to work into walking a fine line — earn too much in wages at their jobs and the SSI amount is reduced, even if the job earnings are not permanent wage increases.

Sheltered workshops, the path to independence for many people with disabilities, have been criticized in recent years for unfairness and exploitation for paying subminimum wages to workers. Kahn-Pauli calls the issue “the biggest elephant in the room.”

“Changes to the earning limits is a critical long term fix that would have wide-ranging consequences for American with disabilities,” Kahn-Pauli said. “Getting a major piece of reform legislation through this Congress is a very remote possibility. However, there is a bipartisan piece of legislation that is slowly getting traction on the sheltered workshop issue. The Transformation to Competitive Employment Act would create a timeline for closing all remain workshops, place current subminimum wage workers with disabilities into competitive employment, and invest in technical assistance for providers to shift to competitive employment practices. At present, only one of Indiana’s congressional delegation is signed on to support the bill. (Rep. Andre Carson of Indianapolis).”

Kay Craig, CEO of Arc of Noble County in Albion, is excited about the positive shift in employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities. Her organization supports people with disabilities in Noble, Steuben and DeKalb counties as well as “a little corner of Whitley County near Churubusco.”

“We work with vocational rehab (rehabilitation) to discover what people’s strengths are,” Craig said. “Those with more disabilities need more time to find a job that fits them.”

Craig said Erksine Green Training Institute in Muncie developed by the Arc of Indiana Foundation is among the first places of its kind where people with disabilities can take post-secondary job skills training. The institute provides certification levels for a variety of jobs in the hotel, food service and health care industries. Students work in career sampling, job shadowing, internships and immersion experiences to prepare themselves for an inclusive workplace.

“People from here in Noble County have gone through that and have been employed multiple years in the community,” Craig said. “That’s very exciting.”

Craig said Arc of Noble County will soon expand its presence for vocational rehabilitation to the community learning center in Kendallville, putting Arc’s services within a larger population center even as it continues its work in Albion.

“It stretches us to more people,” she said.

Arc of Noble County remains a safe space on its workshop floor for people with disabilities who aren’t yet ready for working in the community. Craig said Arc has increased wages to reflect economic conditions in the community.

“It’s no longer a closed door where people never exit,” she said. “We are seeing people going about their lives.”

Alliance Industries in Garrett follows the traditional workshop model for the people with disabilities who work there. Lili Hand, director of Alliance Industries, said the workshop is funded by the United Way, several fundraisers and other donations.

Hand said Alliance employees remain in-house for their workday and concentrate on learning basic job skills.

“Some have gone on to community jobs at Walmart or fast food,” she said. “We help with the application and do practice interviews.”

Hand said Alliance Industries is planning to expand its programs in 2020, thanks to a donation of adjacent land that allows for an addition to the current building.

“We are excited. We can serve more people,” Hand said.

RISE Inc. in Angola serves individuals with disabilities in Steuben and DeKalb counties. RISE executive director Chris Stackhouse said the RISE employment services team connects individuals to employers for compatible, good matches for jobs.

“We work on interviewing,” Stackhouse said. “A job coach is onsite with the individual to help with technical skills, social skills, workplace conduct and relationships, such as with a boss.”

Stackhouse said RISE’s day services are geared for prevocational training to teach skills such as money management, social skills, cooking and other life skills, and hospitality and restaurant skills. Vocational rehabilitation uses job shadowing, skills assessments and job trial experiences to help individuals with disabilities discover what job best suits them.

Stackhouse said educating employers and the community on the contributions that people with disabilities can make is key to success. “Once somebody learns how we come alongside, they are really open to it,” Stackhouse said.

Stackhouse also works with state lawmakers to help them understand how policies affect people with disabilities and their families.

“There’s good debate around what to do with the workshop model,” he said.

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