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Regional Institute Logoby Allison Wohl,  APSE Executive Director

“Progress,” Secretary of Labor Tom Perez is fond of saying, “does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability.” This is certainly true when we talk about employment for Americans with disabilities. It would seem to be inevitable that in 2015, with so many movements demanding economic equality and social inclusion for groups that have been left out of the mainstream, people with disabilities would be part of that tide lifting all boats. But why has it taken so long to get to this point, when the outcome data and government dollars for supported employment were available 20 years ago?

The answer to this question is complex and mired in a history of exclusion. Systems change is fraught with political agendas, financial interests and fear. Much of that fear is rooted in low expectations and a belief that many people with disabilities really aren’t capable of working, even with good job matches and proper supports.

It was against this background that APSE launched its first Regional Institute: From Workshops to Workplaces in Detroit, MI on November 17th and 18th. Partnering with the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) at the US Department of Labor (DOL), the program drew 220 participants, with attendees from 29 states and Ontario!
The presentation and panel topics ranged from diversifying agency funding to professional development to communication with families to financial literacy. Self-advocates discussed their own journeys from sheltered work to community employment and the supports that they were given to succeed, regardless of the impact of their disability.

Perhaps the most rewarding moments of the event were observing those who came as skeptics and had “aha” moments after listening to the presenters and panelists. Because attendees were given networking time to connect with subject-matter experts (and to follow-up with them after the event), they felt supported and armed with tools to start the long process of systems change in their own states and agencies.

The APSE national team has already begun to plan for next year’s Institute and hope that you’ll be a part of it, too. Sometimes progress needs a big push and some technical assistance.