Commentary: How to support job growth for people with disabilities

Few can complain about the current job picture in the U.S. More people are working, spending and driving our economy forward. In September, the U.S. unemployment rate stood at 4.4 percent, roughly where it’s been for the past six months.

This month, as the U.S. Department of Labor recognizes National Disability Employment Awareness Month for the 72nd year, it can point to numbers that show the unemployment rate for people with disabilities ticked down as well: it now stands at 82.1 percent, down 1.6 percentage points.

An enormous swath of our population — primarily individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities (IDD) – remains outside of our traditional workforce. An era of low unemployment is the perfect time to engage them. We can’t expect overnight changes, but there are three steps we can take to grow and support employment for people with IDD and get us started down the right path.

First, the easy one: Hire more people with IDD and support programs that help them find jobs.

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Across Texas, efforts are underway to assist people with IDD to secure jobs in our growing economy. Recently, the Texas Department of Vocation Rehabilitation expanded efforts to engage more agencies like Volunteers of America expand job training and vocational support services for people with disabilities. This means that more employers will be able to hire competent, committed individuals who will be successful, long-term employees.

Employment with businesses across the state — in different types of industries, with employers of all sizes — helps people with IDD connect with their neighbors and fellow employees. It also helps diverse companies fill jobs in a difficult labor market and fosters a spirit of inclusion that encourages new thinking and leads to innovation. The more we can encourage programs like this, the more job opportunities we can find for people with IDD.

Second, learn what it takes to help these individuals succeed.

Our program works because each of the individuals with IDD that we serve is supported by a strong network of professionals. These direct support professionals help individuals get out of bed in the morning, find and keep jobs, and get to work on time. They provide occupational therapy, teach daily living skills and coordinate care. Often, these professionals are paid the same wage — or less — as the individuals they help every day.

Too few of us understand the daily effort these support networks put forth to help people with IDD live engaged lives. As a result, the workers are underappreciated, underpaid and – especially in a low unemployment environment – unlikely to stay in the field. The more you learn, the more you’ll realize that we need to reconsider the way we pay for services, so we can encourage talented people to stay.

Third, help us grow the support profession.

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Supporting individuals with IDD is challenging work. It’s also rewarding work. Our support staff helps people play active roles in their communities. They become part of the family or a best friend. At the end of the day, they know in their hearts that they have done good – that their day wasn’t spent for the benefit of nameless shareholders, but for a buddy who lives a few blocks away.

You know people who would like a job like that. We all do. Tell them to find us. Then spread the word. Push your friends and neighbors to learn about the hard and decent work of support professionals — and how we should recognize that through better pay. Tell them about the opportunities we are missing to lower the unemployment rate even further while also reaching a workforce with untapped potential.

Ask them to imagine an economy with 82.1 percent unemployment. By next October, let’s see if we can get that down below 80. It’s not 4.4, but it’s a start.

King is CEO of Volunteers of America Texas.

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