Thursday, November 19, 2009

Insights from National Research

Many of us who work in the field of employment supports for people with disabilities often become frustrated by the ongoing high rates of unemployment (and underemployment) for people with disabilities. We see ourselves toiling year after year to get more people employed, and wish that employment was a reality for all persons with disabilities. We see the positive outcomes of working, and wonder why so few people with disabilities are gainfully employed.

Part of the problem is that we have been working primarily on the supply side – working to improve the supply of ready and able workers. As a field, we have not paid enough attention to the demand side. We have not created the need for workers with disabilities among employers. As a co-author of the soon to be released NTAR Leadership Center research report "Ready and Able," I had the opportunity to visit and learn about a number of exciting and innovative demand-side programs bringing people with disabilities into the workforce on a broad scale. As I visited these programs and interviewed people involved in these projects, including persons with disabilities, I was impressed by the vision and ingenuity of the businesses and employment organizations.

In this blog entry, I will highlight a couple of them and share some impressions and questions. Project SEARCH at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital has resulted in many people becoming employed and gaining work experiences. Project SEARCH was initiated by Erin Reihle, RN, from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, and has been replicated across the globe, moving into fields other than health care, and offering a promising model for blending demand and supply to bring people with disabilities into the workforce.

Our research project offers an in-depth profile of a replication occurring at Monmouth Medical Center in Red Bank, NJ, showing how the model can be adapted to meet individual employer needs. The New Bedford, MA Chamber of Commerce’s Supported Employment Network offers an example of a unique partnership between the business community and local disability employment organizations, with funding from the local office of the state developmental disability support agency. This collaboration has resulted in hundreds and hundreds of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities working and contributing their labor to the community and local economy.

These two efforts, along with the other profiles created in our research project, document unique, business-led effort to gain valuable employees from diverse groups and create pipelines for hiring workers. As such, these efforts also assure that Americans with disabilities can enjoy the same benefits of work as most other people, both monetary and personal.

The question is, why are these great collaborations the exception rather than the rule? Don’t businesses want good employees? Don’t people with disabilities want to work?

The easy answer for this is that it requires people to reach out to different communities. Businesses usually talk to other business. When the local branch of the state developmental disability state agency in New Bedford, MA reached out to the Chamber of Commerce, there was a positive response, as the director of the Chamber at that time was already involved in the community above and beyond representing business interests. A failure to collaborate on either part would have doomed this project. Openness to difference, however, will result in the meeting of supply and demand, and in our research profiles, we have given a number of wonderful examples of this.

Dan Baker
Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Elizabeth M. Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities
Co-Investigator, NTAR Leadership Center National Research

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