Systems Change: Is It Worth It?

Blog post by Erica Kishpaugh, Employment Services Director

Systems change is hard. It’s especially hard when the current system seemingly works. It takes a lot of dedicated people who share a vision to make it happen.

Pennsylvania and the rest of the United States are currently in the midst of moving from a system of day programs and sheltered workshops to a system promoting employment within a person’s community. It’s a movement from segregated settings to inclusive settings.

It’s easy to say sheltered workshops work. People have a place to go. They seem happy. They have “work.” But if we truly want to support people to have meaningful lives, valued roles, and access to all of the opportunities that anyone has access to, then we must ask ourselves: What does employment look like for the typical person?

No one would answer that question with “Employment looks like a day program or sheltered workshop.”

We would answer by saying that typical employment involves identifying your skills and interests, finding a position doing meaningful work, earning a paycheck, and receiving benefits.

Once we know what typical employment looks like, the question becomes: How do we make that happen for people with disabilities?

Keystone Human Services believes that all people can be contributing members of society, and employment is an important part of a person’s involvement in the community. Although some people may need more support than others, employment is a goal for all working-age youth and adults.

There are challenges to inclusive employment:

  • How do you harmonize the expectations of the business world with the regulations of the human services system?
  • How do you ensure parents are on board with inclusive employment for their child?
  • What if the person’s work schedule doesn’t match their family’s schedule or their residential employees’ schedule?

While these are challenges, they are not roadblocks, and we are working hard to support men and women to find and maintain meaningful work that matches their skills and interests. We will talk about these challenges in future blog posts.

Systems change is hard, but when people jump out of bed in the morning, shower, pack their lunch, and get ready to walk out the door 30 minutes before their ride to work arrives, we know systems change is worth it. When people are excited to go to work, to do something meaningful and make a contribution, and to earn a paycheck, we know it’s worth it.

I recently had a doctor’s appointment, and while waiting for the doctor, the medical technician mentioned that they wished the news stations would highlight people’s abilities instead of focusing on everything that’s wrong with the world. On my way back to work after my appointment, I thought, “Isn’t it great to have a job where I get to focus on people’s abilities?” I work alongside others who continuously encourage people to be the best they can be.

Assisting people to find employment is just that—focusing on their abilities, on what they can do, and assisting them to find the place where they can do it well while contributing to a business.

Just because someone has been unsuccessful in one situation does not mean they will be unsuccessful in another. After all, no one will be successful in every situation. For example, a person might thrive as a doctor working in a hospital, but take the same person and ask them to run a bakery, and they may be significantly less successful. It’s our job to provide support to assist a person with a disability to find the right job match which will ultimately lead to them being contributing members of the community.

It takes collaboration to make this happen. And remember, people with disabilities often have a history of being told what they can’t do. If you’ve been told all your life that you can’t work or that you can only work in a certain type of setting, it could be very hard to think of any other direction for your life. It’s especially hard when the people telling you “you can’t” are the people you love and look up to.

As we move forward with systems change, it’s important to keep a positive attitude about overcoming the barriers that hold people with disabilities back from showcasing their talents and skills while getting paid. Let’s focus on people’s abilities and create positive news!

A Word from KHS’s President: Inclusive Employment

Post by Dennis Felty, President of Keystone Human Services. Originally posted on

When people meet for the first time, one of the first questions they usually ask is “What do you do?” meaning “What work do you do?” For those who don’t have the opportunity to be engaged in valued work, that can be a very difficult question to answer. Our identities and often our sense of self-worth are closely tied to the work we do, and consequently, the role of “employee” is highly valued in society.

Beyond contributing to an affirmative identity, work often offers access to friends and social opportunities. Employees have the opportunity to engage in interesting, meaningful work and change their financial status, ultimately gaining the chance to become self-reliant and live an independent life.

People with disabilities can and do make valuable contributions to the workforce, yet they are largely untapped. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 17.6 percent of people with disabilities were employed in 2013, compared with 64 percent of people without a disability. And at 13.2 percent, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities was almost double that of people without disabilities (7.1 percent).

However, businesses are slowly discovering that inclusive employment benefits everyone. Industry reports have found that workers with disabilities perform their jobs as well as or better than their non-disabled coworkers.

People with disabilities want to work. It’s Keystone Human Services’ vision that everyone can be a contributing member of society, and being employed is an important part of a person’s involvement in the community. The ultimate goal is for individuals to develop skills and transition into jobs that give them independence.

Many participants in the Adult Community Autism Program (ACAP) set goals to find meaningful, competitive employment as part of their plans. ACAP has a strong vocational program. Nearly 80% of all participants in Chester, Cumberland, Dauphin, and Lancaster Counties are working, volunteering, or enrolled in school. Some individuals who are employed are also volunteering or going to school.

People are finding a wide array of attractive employment opportunities, whether it’s with an established company or as an entrepreneur. They want to work and they take pride in the work they do. With employment, they are gaining independence and new social opportunities.

Work is a central component of the human experience. The work that each of us does has an impact on our roles within the community and our families, and it affects how people are perceived and how they feel about themselves. Work can be an important part of living a meaningful and relevant life, contributing to society and the well-being of others.

Is Inclusive Employment Worth It?

Post by Erica Kishpaugh, Employment Services Director in the Central Region of Keystone Human Services Intellectual Disabilities Services

Is it worth it? Is inclusive employment worth all the system changes it requires? Is it worth figuring out how to support people who get jobs for only 4, 15, or 27 hours a week?

Is it worth figuring out how to get people to those jobs when they depend on others for transportation? Providing transportation is challenging enough but especially when it’s five degrees out!  Or worse yet, it’s snowing, schools are closed, and so are the day programs.

Is it worth having to attend extra meetings and coordinate the schedules of parents, teachers, support staff, and supports coordinators? Is it worth creating new schedules for support staff when the job doesn’t fit existing schedules?

Is it worth trying to integrate people with disabilities into the workforce, when often all that is desired is for them to be busy with something meaningful, whether it’s a paying job or not?

These are the common questions I hear. On occasion, they go through my head when I’m frustrated. These questions also pop up when the frustration levels rise among support staff, family, and friends who want the good life for a person with a disability.

Recently, on a very sunny but brisk Saturday, I visited a friend in the hospital. I have known them for years, and for the last several years they have been employed, having found employment through Keystone Human Services’ supported employment services. Once I made it through the hospital maze to their room, we greeted each other and exchanged pleasantries.

Then my friend said, “You’re fired!”

Astonished, my first thought was, it’s Saturday, it’s cold, I came to visit you, and you’re firing me? Then realization washed over me. I was being asked if my friend was fired from their job.

After all, they had been in the hospital for close to a week, so they hadn’t reported to work. Nor had they personally called in to let their employer know they needed to use their leave time.

“Your supervisor knows you’re in the hospital. You’re not fired,” I said. “Don’t worry. Relax. You need to heal, and they know you need to get better before you return to work.”

I could see the tension in their arms and hands relax.

This conversation took place so quickly, I only had time to focus on my friend’s face. Now I really looked at them. They were lying in bed, wearing a wired, cone-shaped neck brace, unable to move their head or neck. There were IV lines in both hands. All this and they were worried about losing their job!

This is the kind of employee businesses want. They want employees who come to work because they like the job. They want people who are responsible to call in when they need time off. They want people who like that sense of accomplishment, the paycheck, the friends they make. They want people who want to work.

Businesses who have hired people with disabilities have learned this secret. These five business owners have learned the value of hiring people with disabilities. These business owners have discovered valuable employees who ultimately increase their employer’s bottom line.

Ron works at United Water tearing apart old meters for recycling. John Hollenbach, Vice President of United Water Mid-Atlantic Region, said, “We’re changing out approximately five-seven thousand meters a year, so he has a big bin to take care of, and he separates them so that when we take them to the scrapyard, we’re probably getting a couple dollars more for every meter Ron does, so you can do the math.  I don’t know how many exact meters he did, but I think it was somewhere in the range of $15,000-$20,000 that we were able to sell those meters for.”

Red Crown Bowling Center has employed Jonathan to vacuum and clean the tables and chairs. Don Kirkpatrick, the owner, said, “We’ve had different bowling proprietors from across the nation who stop in from time to time. We just had one in from Colorado, and he talked to me about my tables, wanted to know if I got new tables and chairs. I said no, they’re seventeen years old, and he remarked about how shiny and new-looking they looked. And that’s just a testament to what Jonathan does.”

Bill Hornung, owner of Hornung’s Ace Hardware, has an inclusive workforce and he said, “You’ll find your staff will improve, your management will improve, and everyone who’s connected to the project will get better. Your image in the community will improve, your customers will find you of more value and will use you more, because everybody wants to be part of helping someone else.”

And not only are the businesses benefitting, but the person with a disability benefits, too. They’re earning a paycheck and have the opportunity to make a difference. Like any other employee, they gain a sense of accomplishment for a job well done.

So is it worth all the system change it will take to create an inclusive workforce?

When you think about all the benefits to the employer and the employee, the answer is yes.

Yes, it is worth it.

Let’s Get to Work

Picture your typical high school student. When they graduate, they may go off to college, spend some time traveling, or find a job. Undoubtedly, their parents have big dreams for them and have pushed and prodded them along the way to gather the skills they’ll need to build a career.

The future for a high school senior with disabilities looks very different. Upon graduation, their options are to stay at home or enter a day program or sheltered workshop. Competitive employment is rarely an option. In fact, students with disabilities may never even have been asked the common question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Their parents and supporters may actually find it difficult to dream about the future.

The unemployment rate for people with disabilities has been 79% for the past two decades. That percentage includes all people with disabilities, including physical disabilities, mental illness, and intellectual disabilities. If we just look at the unemployment rate for people with intellectual disabilities, the number jumps to 97%.

True, many people with intellectual disabilities attend sheltered workshops or some type of group employment where they’re segregated at a business and receive their paycheck from the facility that has the contract to do the job. But while people may get paid for the work they’re doing, it’s not actually considered work by the Department of Labor and the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Work is a job held in a typical workplace setting where the majority of people employed are not persons with disabilities. People earn at least minimum wage and are paid directly by their employer.

Sheltered workshops were primarily established as a place for people with disabilities to develop skills to transition into the competitive labor market. However, in reality, that’s not how sheltered workshops ended up functioning. Many people are continuing to attend workshops with little hope of gaining competitive employment in the community.

On average, people working in traditional jobs earn $456 per week. People with disabilities working in sheltered workshops average $175 per month. Why do they earn so much less in the sheltered workshops? Part of the reason stems from the sub-minimum wage. But people with disabilities are only paid for the work they complete, and the workshops don’t always have work for everyone. (Although everyone is expected to show up every day, regardless of whether there’s work for them.)

But people with disabilities don’t have to work in sheltered workshops. Even people who may struggle to be productive at the sheltered workshop can make valuable contributions to businesses with the right type of support, by focusing on a person’s interests, skills, and when and where they do their best work.

Through customized employment, people with disabilities can and are participating in the workforce. They are earning a paycheck, building relationships with their coworkers, building their confidence, and contributing to the economic stability of their community.

The future for high school seniors with disabilities doesn’t have to look so very different from their peers’ futures. Inclusive employment can be part of it. And with parents, family members, and support staff asking “What do you want to be?”, dreams can grow and the future can hold many possibilities.

Rhode Island’s Groundbreaking Agreement to Move Toward Inclusive Employment

Last week, Rhode Island and the Justice Department came to a groundbreaking agreement to reform the system of sheltered workshops and day programs for people with disabilities. The agreement includes minimum wage guarantees and opportunities for competitive employment, among others. You can read the article from the New York Times here and read a wonderful editorial from the NYT editorial board here. Over the next 10 years, Rhode Island will be working to integrate people with disabilities into the workforce.

Under the agreement, Rhode Island will be moving people out of the sheltered workshops, where many people perform menial tasks such as sorting small items—tasks that do little to showcase their actual abilities. Sheltered workshops were not originally started to segregate people with disabilities from the rest of the workforce. Often, they began because parents felt their children were capable of more and just needed a place to learn skills to help them transition to competitive employment. Although sheltered workshops may have worked successfully for some people, a majority simply ended up segregated from the rest of the community.

This change to an inclusive employment model will involve a shift in the way many people think about people with disabilities and their ability to work. Rather than focusing on what they can’t do, it will drive people to think about theirabilities and the ways they can contribute to the workforce. People with disabilities can and do make valuable contributions to the workforce.

Inclusive employment opens up many possibilities for people’s lives. They’re working, earning a paycheck, making a positive contribution, building friendships. All of this takes time, and it can be difficult to see the possibilities of integration when you aren’t seeing immediate results. It’s important for family members to know that their loved ones are not losing services through sheltered workshops. They will benefit from inclusive employment and all the possibilities it opens.

We are excited to see how these changes unfold in Rhode Island and how this model is then applied in other states.

More Information about Integrated Employment

The Office of Disability Employment Policy and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services held two webinars in February about integrated employment:

Why Should a Business Hire Someone with a Disability?

The theme of this year’s National Disability Employment Awareness Month (October 2013) is “Because We Are EQUAL to the Task,” meaning people with disabilities can be and are successful in the workplace. They have the education, training, and the desire.

Let us take a moment to look at that theme from another perspective. Businesses all require one thing: getting the job done. Getting the job done means that the task is the primary focus. Every task may not be for everyone, but everyone can accomplish a task. Regardless of what that task may be, there is someone who can complete it.

People from all walks of life experience challenges, and businesses still expect them to perform their job. The challenges an individual is experiencing do not necessarily interfere with their ability to do their job. That expectation remains the same for someone with a disability.

Finding the right person for the job is a business’s first priority. This mindset is based on a business’s need for high productivity, low turnover, low absenteeism, and low tardiness. This in turn results in high profitability. It has been proven that people with disabilities are the most dedicated, hard-working, and diligent employees that businesses have.

Shari Wharton of BelFor Restoration in Middletown, Pennsylvania has hired a person with a disability to fill a position, and she said that she is “pleased with the fact that the employee displayed enthusiasm and loyalty, as opposed to someone [without disabilities] taking the job for granted.”

“Employees from Gateway are valuable assets,” said Harry Hauptman of Chapel Pointe in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. (Gateway Employment Group provides supported employment services for people with disabilities.)

In addition to gaining a valuable employee, businesses can take advantage of various federal programs that encourage recruiting and hiring people with disabilities, which in turn makes businesses eligible for tax credits.

The links below have more information about these tax credits.

Employing people with disabilities is not only a way to expand your business, but it will enhance your business. You will gain a dedicated, hard-working employee who will help carry your business into the future.


Do You Believe the Myths?

Myth: People experiencing disabilities, whether visible or invisible, are not able to be productive, contributing members of the workforce. They have a low attendance record and are usually late.

Reality: People with disabilities can and are productive members of the workforce. In fact, that’s the very reason why they are employed! Sometimes a person’s disability makes them uniquely qualified for a position.

Susan works as a Peer Specialist, supporting people in recovery from mental illness to build their skills, manage their mental health, and continue on the path to recovery. “Having a disability helps me do my job better than if I didn’t have one,” said Susan. “My differences give me insight into what other people struggle with and gives me the possibility of being able to help them through my knowledge.”

Once people with disabilities are hired, they often have an above average attendance rate, as well as their performance. Industry reports have found that workers with disabilities do their jobs just as well or even better than their non-disabled coworkers.

Myth: People with disabilities don’t have the same cultural need to be recognized for a job well done, or to have their self-worth and self-esteem fulfilled.

Reality: People with disabilities have the same needs to be recognized for their hard work as anyone else. Just like anyone else, receiving praise for a job well done boosts their self-esteem and contributes to their sense of self-worth.

When Amber, whose disability had prevented her from working for a while, transitioned back into the workforce, she said, “Working gave my life a direction and a purpose. I had a reason to get up in the morning and people who benefited and depended on the contributions I made at my job.”

Myth: People with disabilities don’t want to work. They want to be dependent on “the system.” They don’t want to leave the house, earn a decent wage, go shopping, go to the movies, or have fun at an amusement park.

Reality: People with disabilities want to work just as much as anyone else. They want to have full lives—going to school, working, having a family, grocery shopping, going to the movies, attending sporting events, etc.

Before Susan, a Peer Specialist, took the steps to find a job, she had secluded herself in her bedroom, becoming a recluse. Then one day, she told herself that she was wasting her life, preventing herself from having lots of experiences, and giving up too much of her life to something that was in her power to change.

“Since I decided to get a job,” she said, “my life has been more fulfilling than it was before my illness began. My job gives me the opportunity to help people get out into the community. I model behavior that will help the person feel more comfortable going into the community by themselves.”

Myth: Other people can’t work alongside people with disabilities because they’re different. They can’t do their job, take too much time to manage, and will do or say the wrong thing.

Reality: Employing people with disabilities promotes diversity in the workplace, which has a positive effect on all workers. When Keystone works with businesses to find employment for an individual, our goal is to make sure that both the business and the person will benefit. As required under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), businesses must make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities, but the person must still be qualified for the position in order to be hired.

John Hollenbach, the general manager of United Water Pennsylvania, said “Having Ron a part of United Water ranks right up there as one of the highlights of my 34-year career with the company. He looks forward to coming into work each day and has earned the respect and admiration of our employees.”

Below are more links with information dispelling the myths about people with disabilities in the workforce. It’s worth checking them out to see how inclusive employment is a win-win for everyone.

Everyone Working Side by Side

Inclusive employment is more than just the title of this blog. It’s a movement that is decades in the making. Inclusive employment means having a workforce that includes all members of the community with equal pay and equal opportunity. After decades of being segregated in sheltered workshops and earning below minimum wage, individuals with disabilities and their families are calling for inclusive employment. With a growing call to move people out of the sheltered workshops and into competitive employment, the questions of why and how come up frequently.

Why should people want to leave their homes, workshops, and training centers—places that some people have been in for several years? Greater opportunity and a chance to be independent are just two answers. Everyone wants to grow and encounter new opportunities. We all want to take the skills we have and apply them to improve our lives and the lives of others. We also want to learn new skills and improve our abilities. We want to go beyond our training and do what we know we can do. Inclusive employment allows for the growth of the individual. Individuals are given the chance to showcase skills side by side with other people in the community and earn income that can lead to a more independent life. It also widens people’s social circles, giving them something in common with other employees and making them equal members of a business where they work beside coworkers from all walks of life.

Inclusive employment can be achieved in many ways. With support from family, friends, schools, human service agencies, and businesses, people with disabilities can take the steps to find successful, inclusive employment. Using ideas like customized employment, business engagement, and social capital, people can start entering the workforce in ways they may never have been able to do before. Like Ron at United Water (story on pg 3), someone with a disability can not only find work in the community but thrive in it, with support and an open-minded business.

There are many challenges to all this and many myths that we have to overcome. There are questions about social security, safety, transportation, education, support, and many more. People may doubt that it is possible or even reasonable for people with disabilities to have equal standing in the workforce. With the belief that employment enhances the human spirit and leads to an overall better life, this blog was developed to reach out to job seekers, employers, families, the human services field, and the community on a whole to help answer those questions and spark the conversation on how to make inclusive employment happen. Our goal is to increase the opportunities for individuals with disabilities to work side by side with the rest of the community. This is a challenge but one that can be met.