Real Jobs with Real Wages for People with Disabilities

People with disabilities can and do make valuable contributions to the workforce. We’ve said it many times on this blog. Work is the great equalizer, and people with disabilities have proven to be loyal, hardworking employees who positively affect businesses’ bottom lines.

Employment First is a movement based on the idea that employment is the first priority and the preferred outcome for people with disabilities. In other words, everyone is capable of contributing to the workforce and should have the opportunity for inclusive employment. We’re talking about real jobs with real wages, not piecemeal work in a sheltered workshop.

An important part of supporting people to find and maintain competitive employment is supporting them within their own communities. Genni Sasnett, an Employment First State Leadership Mentoring Program National Subject Matter Expert, recently wrote a blog post about the need to “think globally and work locally.” She discusses the decentralization of supported employment services and the movement toward supporting people to live and work within their own communities.

Read her article Think Globally—Work Locally to learn more about this decentralization movement and the progress of inclusive employment.

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.

Developing Vision

Post by Rebecca Longa, Supported Employment Coordinator with Keystone Human Services Intellectual Disabilities Services

Vision is one of the guiding forces in what we do in customized employment. Vision is necessary to see a future and plan how to get there. It means seeing creative and innovative employment processes and options for individuals with disabilities when typical processes and options would prevent an individual from finding employment.

The customized employment process starts by keeping vision broad and focusing on themes instead of jobs. For example, by following the customized employment process, you would focus on the theme of fashion and beauty rather than specific jobs like hair stylist, nail technician, clothing retailer, tailor, etc.

As the process continues, employment specialists think outside the box for employment opportunities. They look for ways to benefit businesses by restructuring jobs or creating a position to fill a need the business has.

Having vision is important as an employment specialist, but how do you inspire vision in others?

I was recently reminded about the importance of helping the individuals we support and their families to have vision. One gentleman recently completed a seasonal position, and we were discussing which direction he wanted to take his employment search. He explained that he would like a steady job so he could save for commercial driver’s license (CDL) training. He further explained that he would like to gain experience and become an independent contractor.

He proceeded to research schooling options not only for CDL training, but also for business training. I was impressed by his foresight and planning for the future. He had a vision, an idea of where he wanted his job experience to take him, and it made me aware of assisting other individuals to develop a similar vision.

In addition, it’s important to help family and members of the support team to have a vision for an individual, too. They need to see beyond the stereotypical positions for individuals with disabilities, such as cleaning, collecting carts, filling condiment stations, etc. Individuals truly have a chance for future growth when everyone in their support circle can envision a fully inclusive, productive future.

Employment specialists also work with employers and help them develop vision for both the individual and their business. Businesses can greatly benefit from employing people with disabilities. Sometimes it’s just a matter of discovering what needs the business has and how that individual can meet them. Sometimes existing jobs can be restructured to include a person with a disability, allowing both the person with the disability and other employees to maximize their best skills.

Vision and the creativity to think outside the box are essential for developing a more inclusive workforce and a more inclusive community. After all, vision is about working with a clear sight for the future.

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.

Everyone Benefits through Customized Employment

People with disabilities, even significant disabilities, can and do make valuable contributions to the workforce. According to a 2013 Manpower Group Survey, 35% of employers are unable to fill jobs because of a talent shortage, and yet persons with disabilities are often excluded from the talent pool.

Erica Kishpaugh, the co-chair of our Employment Committee, recently participated in a conference call through the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) on inclusive employment and diversifying the workforce. Keystone Human Services has made a Commitment to Action through CGI on “Disabilities: Social and Financial Inclusion for Women and Girls.” As part of this Commitment, Keystone is supporting the rights of women with disabilities to access employment, education, vocation training opportunities.

Through customized employment, persons with disabilities who may be viewed as “unemployable” can make valuable contributions to businesses. “Employment is the great equalizer,” said Michael McAllister, who was the co-founder and executive director of Networks for Training and Development and a powerful advocate for inclusive employment. “When people are employed, earning money, working side-by-side with others, many of the issues that separate people simply go away.”

Fundamental to a customized approach is the understanding that each person is unique. Each person has skills they can bring to the table and give value to a business, even if they may not be able to speak or physically complete a time sheet.

Through the customized employment process, we work with each person and business to highlight those skills and attributes. The important things to remember, though, is that finding a job for someone with  disability is the same as finding a job for someone without a disability. Just like with anyone else, it’s important to learn what skills and tasks a person does well, and in what conditions they are most productive. We also learn about the person’s interests, because just like anyone else, they will be more engaged in their work if they like what they’re doing.

When it’s time to reach out to businesses, it’s all about who you know. We network. Think about how you got your first job. Most likely, you knew someone who knew someone who knew of a job opening—and that’s how you got the job. It’s no different for a person with a disability.

We look for businesses that will be a good match, where the tasks of the job align with the person’s skills and personal attributes to make a valuable contribution to the company. Sometimes, the company will analyze the various tasks performed by their current employees and reconfigure a selection of these tasks into a new customized job. In fact, the company may actually save money and become more productive by hiring a person with a disability. Both the person and the company benefit.

Everyone has something of value to contribute to a business. Customized employment is one way to discover those skills and turn them into actions to the benefit of both the person and the business.

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: