The Perfect Storm of Opportunity

by Allison Wohl, Executive Director

One of the many reasons that I wanted to join the APSE national team just over a year ago is that I realized that there were a number of distinct and strong movements that were developing that seemed to be converging at a national level.  A perfect storm of opportunity to fully achieve competitive integrated employment was clearly on the horizon.

While the Employment First movement is certainly not a new one, it has gained traction and momentum steadily over the years in various states. With the passage and implementation of WIOA, the idea that public workforce and support systems must presume competence is written into statute, turning the assumptions on which our outdated systems are built on their heads. The implementation of the CMS Home and Community Based Services (HCBS) settings regulation has clarified what it means to be part of one’s community by mandating that setting in which the person receives services “is integrated in and supports full access of individuals receiving Medicaid HCBS to the greater community, including opportunities to seek employment and work in competitive integrated settings, engage in community life, control personal resources, and receive services in the community, to the same degree of access as individuals not receiving Medicaid HCBS.” Those are powerful words.

When I began this work in 2011, the first pass at reauthorizing the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) of 1973 was underway; this was a precursor to what we now know as WIOA. At that time, Senator Harkin wanted to insert a provision that would phase out subminimum wages for individuals with disabilities. Due to an outcry from many corners of the disability world, the provision was removed—considered at the time to be “too controversial” — to insert in the bill. Just five years later, the national conversation has shifted from a discussion of when (not if) subminimum wages will be phased out. States are introducing and passing laws that will eliminate sheltered workshops and the payment of subminimum wages. CMS has given states 5 years to comply with its regulation that services must not isolate individuals with disabilities who are being served.

Corporations are recognizing that hiring individuals with disabilities is an asset to their bottom line; that a corporate culture is not diverse unless it includes individuals with disabilities. The federal government implemented Section 503, which sets a goal for federal contractors that they hire and retain individuals with disabilities at a rate of 7% of their workforce. Starbucks, Walgreens, Microsoft, Office Depot, to name just a few, have become leaders in attracting and retaining workers with disabilities.

It looks to me like the perfect storm of opportunity—for the individuals we serve, for the national economy in which 70% of Americans with disabilities are unemployed and in which 28% of the same group are living in poverty. Real employment for Americans with disabilities and real systems change in the public systems that support them is a welcome storm that is long overdue.

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