There is a lot of talk today about demand-side employment strategies in our nation’s workforce development circles. America is working hard to prepare and connect job seekers with its emerging workforce needs as defined by our business leadership community. This makes a great deal of sense. Who can argue with ideas to supply a prepared and talented labor pool and insure a strong economy and world-class workforce?
The problem with a one-dimensional view of workforce development is that many people with something to contribute are often left behind. This is true for America’s largest minority population—people with disabilities. Few realize that only three in ten citizens with significant disabilities actually hold competitive jobs in the workforce. This constitutes a 70% unemployment rate in an economy that features a five percent rate for everyone else.
Is this merely a social problem of little concern to private industry? Well, think about it. America not only loses the productivity of some citizens, but our economy is dragged further by higher taxes. It takes literally billions of dollars to fund the broad range of Social Security disability, welfare, and community rehabilitation needed by unemployed people with disabilities. The annualized costs to operate these programs are growing out of control and are now a fixed portion of our national, state, and local human service budgets.
So who owns this problem? Unemployment is everybody’s problem! We can choose to ignore it. However, institutionalized, persistent unemployment is not going to go away by looking the other way. As responsible citizens, we all have an important role in addressing it. I don’t know of anyone who has all of the answers. Fortunately, there is a national movement afoot to try to correct the present problem.
National research demonstrations now tell us that many people with disabilities can succeed when customized employment approaches are used. This means they are served best when we see them as individuals and look carefully at the unique talents they have to offer.
Let’s be clear here. We are not talking about corporate charity or volunteer work. We are talking about real work for real pay inside the workforce. And we are talking about how customization of job duties, training, work conditions, use of technologies, and other supports can lead to success. Customization means planning and delivering support one employee at a time.
Of course, a disability condition should never be a deciding factor in hiring somebody for a competitive job. Conversely, it shouldn’t be an exclusionary factor either (unless it’s a bona fide hiring issue). Hiring decisions should always be about one’s ability to contribute and be productive.
With that said, wouldn’t it be wonderful if more employers took an active interest to assess how customized employment can add value to their business objectives? The late Francis Fogerty, a founder of Rise, Incorporated, once said: “If every employer took an interest and hired just one individual with a disability, we wouldn’t need Rise.” Fogerty’s vision was accurate 34 years ago and is right on target today.
Don Lavin is Vice President of Rise, Inc., Spring Lake Park. For more information visit: www.rise.org