Each month, the State of Michigan releases unemployment numbers, which are seen as a major indicator of the state’s economic health. One subset of these numbers is often overlooked — the employment levels for people with disabilities.
Michigan and other states struggle with the challenge of employing people in this group. The discrepancy is significant. As of March 2016, the national unemployment rate for people without disabilities was 4.9%. For people with disabilities, it was more than double that figure. Perhaps even more indicative of the challenge is the gap in the labor force participation rate of nearly 69% for people without disabilities, and almost 20% for people with disabilities.
For people with disabilities, the low workforce participation rate is complex. As with the general population, there is a “skills gap” – employers have trouble finding qualified talent, and many working-age adults give up after facing barriers to finding and keeping a good job. For people with disabilities, other challenges include concerns about losing benefits due to income limits, low expectations, and a system of employment services and supports that are not aligned and are underfunded.
People with disabilities usually have several choices for work. One option is “facility-based” employment, which means a work setting where most of the people have a disability and receive onsite job-related support and supervision from people familiar with their needs. MRC Industries in Kalamazoo is an example.
Another is “community-based” work, whether individual or supported employment, in which people with disabilities work with non-disabled people.
In both cases, there are some “supporting” agencies that help people find jobs. The state’s education system delivers transition services. The vocational rehabilitation system offers counseling and job placement assistance. The community mental health system includes employment goals in their plans of service for people with behavioral health challenges and intellectual disabilities. And finally, there is the private nonprofit sector – community-based, mission-driven businesses that promote successful employment outcomes by partnering with these agencies.
MARO is a statewide network of these “providers.” MARO members provide employment, independent living, community living supports, skill building, and rehabilitation training to thousands of people with barriers.
Historically, these providers haven’t always collaborated to the fullest extent. Despite the fact that they shared the same vision and mission, there has been some disagreement about the best way to go about things. There is sometimes a perception of nonprofit service providers as self-serving. Because these organizations create revenue by serving others, they are sometimes accused of seeking to further their own objectives instead of best serving people in need. It is a complex environment, which has been too often fraught with a lack of trust and collaborative spirit.
A new approach is happening here in Michigan. The Employment First State Leadership Mentoring Program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor, is coordinated by the State of Michigan Developmental Disabilities Council. It is focused on a shift away from facility-based employment to community-based, integrated jobs. One of the major goals here is to bring together more agencies to reach young adults transitioning from education to employment.
MARO and the state’s Developmental Disabilities Council have not historically been aligned on the issue of facility-based vs. community-based employment. What is incredibly innovative in this new approach is that the two organizations have decided to put aside their differences over the issue and work together under this federal grant to place people with disabilities in jobs.
Here in Michigan, we have come to the table, agreed to disagree on some details regarding the process, and focus on the outcomes -- increasing the number of community-based, competitive, integrated jobs for people with disabilities.
Now in its second year, the Employment First State Leadership Mentoring Program has brought together the educational system, the vocational rehabilitation agencies, and the behavioral health and developmental disabilities administration, along with the workforce development agency, advocacy groups and the private sector to work toward this shared vision of independence and inclusion.
There are 19 states involved in this ODEP Grant, but only Michigan and Iowa have directly included “providers,” which is a term often used to describe private sector service providers. Employment First is a national movement that establishes competitive employment in an integrated setting as the optimal outcome for people with disabilities. “Competitive” means at or above minimum wage. “Integrated setting” means an environment where people of all abilities work side by side. To be successful, it will involve raised expectations and engagement earlier in an individual’s career journey, as well as other goals.
What does this look like in action? One job seeker, A. N., had been working for facilities-based MRC Industries’ custodial crews for more than a year. He was very successful there and the “go to” guy when something needed to be done, but he wanted his “own” job. He began working with the state vocational rehabilitation agency in July 2015. First, he found a position providing custodial services at a local car dealership, but the workplace culture was not a good fit.
He and his employment specialist then found a position at a local furniture retailer helping to stage the display areas for customers and provide light custodial work. This was not a posted position, but required the specialist and A. N. to “customize” the job so that it was a fit for both him and the employer. The employment specialist built a relationship with the store manager, and together they developed the job description to be mutually beneficial. A. N. is now working 20 hours per week at $9.00 per hour.
This is what the future may look like, in Michigan and eventually in other states. It is clear at the federal level that the push will be towards community-based work. It is less clear what will happen with facilities-based employment. Waiting to see how this all pans out is not helping people with disabilities now.
MARO and the state have agreed to move the needle toward more community-based job placements now, rather than wasting time and money focusing on differences. This kind of cooperation benefits Michigan in many ways—but the most profound impact is on people with disabilities who find new ways to support themselves, expand their horizons, and contribute to society in a greatly enriched way.
Todd Culver is the executive director of the Michigan Association of Rehabilitation Organizations.