This is a guest post from Wendy Parent, Research Associate Professor and Assistant Director, Lawrence Site, Kansas University Center on Developmental Disabilities, NTAR National Research Advisory Panel Member
Employment First is an exciting new public policy that is gaining increased momentum at the state and federal levels. It establishes the idea that integrated competitive employment is the first option for all individuals regardless of disability level or support needs. This is significant in that it changes the way we think and overtime changes the way we do things with funding streams and service delivery practices eventually following suit.
To date, numerous states have implemented some type of Employment First activity. These include: Minnesota, Oklahoma, Georgia, Washington, Tennessee, California, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Missouri, Indiana, Colorado, Vermont, Delaware, Iowa, and Kansas. Efforts have focused upon conferences, summits, publications, training and technical assistance, agency goals and mission statements, and policies and legislation. Kansas has recently submitted an Employment First Bill, H.R. 2669, which has passed the House and is currently in the Senate for vote. This landmark piece of legislation establishes that “…competitive and integrated employment of persons with disabilities in communities of Kansas shall be the first priority in the state…” and creates an oversight commission for monitoring and accountability.
The Employment First Bill introduced in Kansas represents the culmination of a series of major activities and multiple peoples’ involvement. The original impetus was the result of contract negations between the state funding agencies and provider organizations including self-advocates in which “employment first” language was added. A task force of key stakeholders was appointed and the outcome of their work was an Initial Report and Recommendations. The concept was rolled out for the legislature at a reception conducted at the beginning of their session with presentations from several individuals with disabilities who talked about their employment experiences, an employer, and a researcher who discussed employment outcomes in Kansas. Information sharing and networking for professionals, families, and individuals with disabilities is proposed at a two-day Kansas Employment First Summit to be held in the near future with an impressive line-up of national speakers and ending with a Conversation with the Governor’s Cabinet Secretaries and Directors.
Why emphasize work? Research shows that employers express positive attitudes toward workers with disabilities and are willing to hire employees with extensive support needs when they receive competent services from disability employment programs (Katz & Luecking, 2009). Individuals with disabilities themselves, tell us they want to work and have made employment their priority (Alliance for Full Participation, 2009; The Riot, 2007). Furthermore, supported and customized employment strategies are effective at meeting the hiring needs of the employer and the support needs of the employee resulting in a cost-efficient alternative to sheltered work and day services (Cimera, 2008; Office of Disability Employment Policy, 2005; Wehman, Inge, Revell, & Brooke, 2007).
Why Employment First? Nationally, the number of individuals participating in sheltered work and day services continues to rise. In Kansas and many other states, the majority of their dollars are spent on funding these segregated programs for the very population of people for whom supported and customized employment strategies were developed and have proven to be effective. Multiple systemic issues contribute to the problem. A federal and/or statewide employment first policy would begin to shift these outcomes by establishing integrated competitive employment as the first option for people with disabilities. No one agency or organization can do it alone. Employment First would put everyone on the same agenda, working towards the same goal, with integrated competitive employment as the expected outcome and the focus of limited resources. A collaborative effort will direct our attention to the challenges we must address in order to make these outcomes a reality for all citizens with disabilities. Employment First could potentially be the change we need.