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Employment First for People with Disabilities

But I say to you that when you work, you fulfill a part of the earth’s furthest dream, assigned to you when that dream was born…Work is love made visible.

– Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931, Lebanese-American artist, poet and writer)

Just like the rest of us, people with disabilities are part of the earth and the societies that it supports. They, also, were assigned a piece of this dream. They also have a right to the dignity of work. Unfortunately, most of them do not work. The following statistics are from United Cerebral Palsy’s “Case for Inclusion Report”, most recently released with 2016 data.

The data reflects (over time and in each state) what percentage of people with disabilities are working either competitively or in supported employment. Competitive employment is employment in which the person with a disability was hired from among a field of people with and without disabilities, and works with some or no accommodations for their disability. All the accommodations are provided by the employer, and any support is what is termed “natural” support and is provided by other employees of the company rather than by a paid professional. If I am a person with an intellectual disability working at greenhouse, and one of my co-workers occasionally reminds me which plant food to use for which plants, that is a natural support. Supported employment, on the other hand, is where a paid professional assists the person with a disability in learning and doing the job, at least for a period. If, again, I work at the greenhouse but for the first 3 months I have a job coach with me who helps me break down large tasks and prompts me from one step to another, that is supported employment. Let’s look at my home state of Illinois and some of its neighboring states.

  • In 2016, 6% of Illinois residents with disabilities worked in competitive or supported employment. This figure is down from a peak of 19% in 2009 and even 13% in 2004.

  • In Indiana, 15% of people with disabilities worked in competitive or supported employment, which is down from a peak of nearly 50% in 2004.

  • In 2016 in Kentucky, 18% of people with disabilities worked, which is up from 9% in 2011 but down from 23% in 2004.

  • In Michigan in 2016, 23% of people with disabilities worked, which is a figure that was flat since 2011 and down from a peak of 74% in 2009 and 23% in 2004.

  • In Wisconsin, 21% of people with disabilities worked, which is down a little from 23% in 2011 and up a bit from 16% in 2004.

The “Case” report summarized that 10 states had competitive and supported employment rates for people with disabilities as over 33%. Fifteen states reported that 60% of people with disabilities, working through their departments of vocational rehabilitation, found competitive or supported employment. Nineteen states reported that the people with disabilities working worked more 25 hours or more per week. If 33% is the minimum acceptable target, then Illinois has a long way to go, and even its neighbors need to do more work.

Although it may not be obvious from the 2016 figure, Illinois DOES have an “employment first” policy enacted as law: In addition, Illinois has an executive order, This order requires that all agencies . , that support and monitor services to people with disabilities, work from both a policy and a practical standpoint to make employment in the community the first and preferred option for people with disabilities, including people with mental illness, who receive support. The agencies are expected to de-prioritize day programs and “day training”. in favor of real work in the community:

Illinois participated in 2015 and 2016 in national mentoring programs, which was developed by the United States Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment, and their website is: Under this program, the Illinois government is expected to work closely and extensively with state-agency staff, provider agencies, direct-care staff, and advocates to especially improve supported employment services to people with disabilities. The Illinois Department of Human Services does provide on its website resources for job-seekers with disabilities. People with disabilities, who receive Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), are eligible for the Ticket to Work program through Social Security, as we have discussed in past blogs. If you have a Ticket, you can make use of job readiness, job search, and employment-support resources from either the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation or through various non-government Employment Networks (ENs).

Illinois has made at least a verbal commitment to Employment First. In practice, there is a lot more work to be done, however. If you are a person with a disability who wants to work, or if you are the family member, friend, or support worker of one, regardless of your political bent, please let your legislators know. Employing people with disabilities will only make Illinois better. We all have the urges to make our states and our society better.

And all urge is blind, save when there is knowledge,

And all knowledge is vain save when there is work,

And all work is empty save when there is love;

And when you work with love you bind yourself to yourself, and to one another, and to God.

--Kahlil Gibran

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