I will share several impressions from that day.
First, it was exciting to see the two Assistant Secretaries—Jane Oates from the Employment and Training Administration (ETA), and Kathy Martinez, from the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) – sitting side by side. Aside from the fact that they appeared to be enjoying each other’s company, and that they stayed for the entire 3-hour event, the picture of them sitting together seems to send a message that disability employment is clearly on the agenda at ETA. I have had the chance to see (the always dynamic) Assistant Secretary Oates speak in public several times where she has emphasized the importance of interagency collaboration at the federal level, especially between the USDOL and the US Department of Education. It’s great to see this collaborative spirit also applies in-house to the various agencies within the Labor Department itself. It also fits in perfectly with what the NTAR Leadership Center is promoting around cross-agency partnerships and collaboration at the state level.
Many of the day’s 21 speakers spent their five minutes discussing contributions made by Disability Program Navigators. In preparing my remarks, Kathy Krepcio and I decided to primarily focus on the tremendous efforts made by the three states in our State Leaders Innovation Institute, Maryland, Minnesota and Connecticut. We reflected on issues these states and others have raised repeatedly about some of the challenges people with disabilities face as a result of a fragmented workforce development system, with its various programs that sometimes result in contradictory messages about employment expectations for people with disabilities. We hope that a reauthorized WIA can make some progress towards a unified federal policy affirming that people with disabilities are an integral part of the nation’s workforce, and that there can be better alignment across traditional labor, education, and health and human services agencies at all levels to promote employment of people with disabilities.
When we launched the SLII, the Great Recession was just beginning to take hold of the American economy. In the months since then, and with the prospect of high unemployment continuing for months if not years to come, people often raise the issue of how the workforce system can possibly hope to better serve people with disabilities, with so very many non-disabled jobseekers in the labor market. In watching our states go about their work, I’m coming to think we need to learn from their example that jobseekers are jobseekers first, regardless of their unique challenges, and that the workforce system has as much of an obligation to serve people with disabilities as it does any jobseekers.
On a side note: Two of my kids have recently taken up fencing, and we were all interested to read an article in the front section of the New York Times about young fencers who are in wheelchairs. Fencing is a popular sport in our home state of New Jersey, and it was great to see that the New Jersey Fencing Alliance has invested in making wheelchair fencing, which traces its roots to returning World War II veterans, available in our area.
Senior Research Project Manager at the Heldrich Center
and Director of the NTAR Leadership Center's State Leaders Innovation Institute