I’m blogging from the full Senate HELP committee hearing on “State Leadership and Innovation in Disability Employment.” Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat of Iowa, who recently announced that he will not seek re-election, chairs the HELP committee and these proceedings. He is considered the most important champion of the rights of people with disabilities in the Senate today.
Previously, Sen. Ted Kennedy held this distinction, but before and since his death, Harkin has done landmark work on disability issues. His commitment is rooted in the experience of his brother, who was deaf and a productive worker who helped make planes for the U.S. Air Force. Harkin’s report on jobs for people with disabilities is an outstanding piece of work in terms of laying out the problems.
Leaders of disability groups want to know who will take the mantle when Harkin retires. Will Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Republican from Tennessee who is the committee’s minority leader, get really excited by these issues? Sen. Mark Kirk, a Republican of Illinois, had a stroke. Will he become the new leader on this issue? Will Sen. John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming, or Sen. John McCain, Republican of Arizona, both of whom supported the Treaty on Disability issues, come forward?
We are also asking what can be done now, on Harkin’s watch, about the fact that more than two decades after the historic passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the chances for employment for people with disabilities is just as dismal today as it was decades ago?
The first witness, and a hero in the story, is the Jewish and highly popular governor of Delaware, Jack Markell. Markell is also Chair of the National Governor’s Association which met these last days in Washington. Indeed, over the weekend Markell was doing two things – toasting the President of the United States at the Governor’s dinner at the White House, and separately leading a discussion of the Governors on how to solve the crisis of getting people with disabilities into jobs and off the public dime.
According to his prepared testimony, Markell will say “Research indicates that 67 percent of working-age people with disabilities would rather be working than be unemployed and nonproductive. Yet, the United States spends an estimated $300 billion annually to support people with disabilities who are unemployed.”
Each Chair of National Governor’s Association gets to pick one topic for all the fifty governors to focus on for a year. Gov. Markell’s NGA Chair’s Initiative, “A Better Bottom Line: Employing People with Disabilities,” focuses on the employment challenges that affect individuals with intellectual and other disabilities and the roles both state governments and businesses can play in advancing employment opportunities for these individuals.
According to Markell’s testimony: “The NGA initiative is designed to do two primary things: 1) raise awareness of how the untapped talents of people with disabilities can contribute to a business’s bottom line and 2) to define ways both state government and business can partner to advance the employment of individuals with disabilities in the competitive labor market.”
Markell’s testimony continues by saying “we are talking about an 80% to 90% unemployment rate for a significant portion of our country’s workforce. Not being expected to work and earn a living is distinctly not a privilege. America’s working age adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities are overwhelmingly excluded from what the rest of our nation takes for granted – the right, opportunity, support and expectation to find employment and “make a living.” Not surprisingly, for the most part, they are living in poverty. Poverty is not by definition an accompanying condition to disability, but unfortunately, that is the case in the United States.”
Following Markell is a panel of experts. Here are highlights of their prepared testimony.
Jane Boone, Consultant, State Employment Leadership Network, Washington State, Seattle, WA
“For the workforce of people with very complex disabilities, that support will likely include expertise from a job developer to get the job, and a job coach or employment specialist on the job. That is not always needed, and when it is, it’s not usually much of a difference, it may include more in the way of on the job supports, job restructuring or more thinking about arranging the accommodations any of us need to get our jobs done to our employer’s and our own satisfaction.
While valuing the inclusion of all people is at the heart of Washington’s success, being clear and accountable to a goal is critical to successful achievement of any pursuit”
Mike O’Brien, Executive Director, Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services, Oklahoma City, OK
“Our country spends far too much money on maintaining people with disabilities outside the workforce and a very small amount on encouraging people with disabilities to work. If you combine the annual costs of SSDI, SSI, Medicaid and Medicare, we spend roughly $400 billion on safety net supports and about $4 billion helping people with disabilities build their skills and go to work. We need an early intervention system with social security that positions people to be referred to vocational rehabilitation at the on-set of disability and that encourages work rather than long-term receipt of income supports. This means that current Social Security Work programs such as Ticket-to-Work need better alignment and cooperation with the public vocational rehabilitation program. We continue to be the most successful program in putting people with disabilities to work. Why not increase our participation? Once people become entrenched in the system, it becomes difficult for them to choose work. It is a much longer discussion, but disincentives have got to be resolved, particularly issues with Medicare and Medicaid, so that people can choose work.”
Don Uchida, Executive Director, Utah State Office of Rehabilitation, UT
“Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) can be a revenue generating program. In Utah, we effectively use federal and state dollars to train, re-train and sustain people in employment who then become productive tax payers. Over time, our investment consistently provides a return. In 2010, the University of Utah conducted a study and determined that every state dollar invested in Utah’s vocational rehabilitation program had a return of $5.64. We run the program like a business. Utah’s VR Program is one of the most productive and cost effective programs in the nation with the second lowest cost per successful rehabilitation in Federal Region VIII. Nationally, we are the eighth most productive combined agency with the eighth lowest cost per successful rehabilitation.”
I have asked each of the people speaking for more information so stay tuned!
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is the Founder & President of Laszlo Strategies and is the Co-Founder & Director of the Mizrahi Family Charitable Trust.