Each October, the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) celebrates National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) in order to highlight contributions to the American workforce that have been made by individuals with disabilities. For NDEAM 2017, the theme of “Inclusion Drives Innovation” was chosen to emphasize the fact that including individuals with a variety of backgrounds and ability levels in the workforce allows for diverse ideas and unique perspectives, which in turn drives innovation.
Many of the technologies that drive our modern society were originally developed either for or by individuals with disabilities. Most of us probably use things such as automatic doors or voice recognition software each and every day without stopping to think about why they were created. Even the basic technology which drives our modern email communication was originally developed, in part, by an individual who lived with a hearing disability and wanted to develop an alternative to vocal communication.
In addition to driving innovation, employment improves the lives of the employed individuals as well. For many individuals with disabilities, poverty is a constant concern. Having a reliable income from steady employment is essential for overcoming poverty. In addition to financial concerns, employment can benefit individuals by helping them gain confidence and self-esteem through having an identity as a contributing member of society.
Employment First Means Employment for All
The growing understanding of the benefits of diversity in employment, for both the individuals and the institutions, has generated a movement towards “Employment First” programs and policies. Having an “Employment First” focus means that the preferred outcome for every publicly funded agency is to find meaningful employment, in the general workforce, for all individuals, regardless of disability.
In 2006, Washington became the first state with a statewide “Employment First” policy when their Developmental Disabilities Administration began prioritizing employment services for all adults in their programs. Washington’s commitment to Home and Community-Based Services (HCBS) has continued and in 2014, the Vulnerable Individuals Priority Act was passed. This new law was designed to reduce, and preferably eliminate, wait lists for individuals who are hoping to access supported employment resources.
Oregon was another early adopter of “Employment First” practices when it created a statewide initiative in 2008. The state later acted to expand its efforts, in April 2015, by submitting a Home and Community Based Services Transition Plan that is designed to help individuals with disabilities gain employment, participate in community life and manage their own personal resources.
Streamlining Processes Improves Outcomes
In order to encourage more states to adopt an “Employment First” focus, the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) introduced the Employment First State Leadership Mentoring Program (EFSLMP). This program is designed to provide technical assistance and peer collaboration opportunities as state agencies refine and improve their policies and procedures to encourage an employment-centered focus. One of the most important pieces of this program is an emphasis on cross agency cooperation. States generally have a number of different agencies that handle areas such as education, disability services, and employment placement. When these agencies operate independently, it causes confusion and frustration for individuals attempting to access resources. By streamlining policies, procedures and funding requirements across agencies, individuals with disabilities can easily access the resources needed to find and maintain employment.
When EFSLMP was introduced in 2012, only four states participated; that number has since grown to nineteen. In the last five years, EFSLMP has provided thousands of hours of training as well as helped to identify and revise dozens of policies and procedures that were hindering employment goals for individuals with disabilities. In just the first three participating states, over 1,400 individuals have found meaningful employment with the assistance of policy changes and multi-agency cooperation.
At its core, innovation requires new ideas. There is no better way to generate those new ideas than by having a diverse workforce that is made up of individuals with a variety of backgrounds, perspectives, and ability levels. When “Employment First” policies are used to give individuals with disabilities the opportunity for meaningful employment, it not only allows those individuals to improve their own lives, it can potentially provide the spark needed to drive the innovations that improve all of our lives.