I spent the first half of my career assisting individuals with disabilities obtain employment and become Self Advocates. I am now an early childhood special education teacher, and the parent of a young man with disabilities.
There are many issues that need to be looked at. In the Education system you have a thrust toward academics and getting students college ready. The Common Core Learning Standards being used were designed for students without disabilities. Our students with more severe cognitive and physical disabilities do not have the same end goal when they graduate, most will not go to college. Most functional skill training has been removed from the curriculum, leaving our students with the most severe disabilities at a loss as they get older.
At some point our students with disabilities are going to be living in the community, yet the curriculum does not address preparing the students for community life. To start teaching these skills when the student exits school is too little too late.
Issue – Employment programs have always been on the lower end of the funding, while Adult Day Service Programs were funded on the higher end. It became financially beneficial for students to end up in the Day Program. Agencies pushed students into Day Programs rather than work programs. I designed a Day Program where half of the day the participants participated in work training and the other half they could choose other options. The funding stream questioned my design at first, but did let the program move ahead and eventually it became a model program.
Disincentive – losing the SSI check. I have seen many cases where the family of the student discourages employment because the family needs the SSI money for things like food and rent. The parent is usually the Rep Payee for the SSI check. If employed the student is paid and may not give their money to the parent. I found I had to be creative here. With some participants I was able to work with them on giving the parent some of their paycheck toward food and rent.
Unfortunately it is not just with parents that losing the SSI money is a problem. One of my supported employment individuals lived in a residential program and every time he got a raise the agency wanted his hours cut because his SSI check paid for his rent. At the point that he was under 10 hours a week he decided to leave the residential program rather than give up his job. This young man was fortunate that he had a brother who purchased a mother/daughter home and he was able to move out of the group home and into his brother’s house, thus enabling him to keep his job. This young man was promoted several times, still works for the same business and trains new employee. Every time he sees someone who knows me he sends me a message that he is still working.
Although the SSDI system is different, it still has disincentives to work, namely the loss of the benefit as salary or number of hours go up.
Social skill development is a key factor for students. In my 20 or so years of assisting individuals with disabilities find employment, more were unsuccessful because of their social skills than a lack of ability to do the job. We can teach the job skills, but if we also do not teach the social skills necessary for the employment market than our participants do not have a chance of making it in the world of work.
Even with the ADA, employment outcomes for individuals with disabilities has not increased that much. If we do not educate employers about hiring individuals with disabilities we will have a prepared work force and no jobs. Most employers who have hired knew someone with a disability, a family member, friend, acquaintance. Then there were the employers who gave someone a shot and saw that the person with a disability could work. The back up support of a job coach if needed was a selling point and in many cases sold the business on hiring. More often than not businesses saw hiring someone with a disability as a liability. Without incentives it is hard to get a business to give a disabled employee a chance. Tax credits helped in the past, but they were not always offered. I found the most successful method of assisting individuals with disabilities obtain employment, was having them train at businesses for 1 month. After the month the business was encouraged to hire from the group. Many of the businesses involved in this program did hire from the group year after year.
I think if we start on the school level and build employment skills into our curriculum instead of only looking at college preparation as the new CCLS do, we will at least prepare students with disabilities for employment. Funding for employment programs needs to be competitive with funding for day programs if you want to see more adult services program trying to assist individuals with disabilities to get employment. Lastly we need to reduce the disincentive toward work created by losing government benefits when you go to work.