Disability Employment Outlook

In a recent interview with Dr. Roy Grizzard, Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), […]

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In a recent interview with Dr. Roy Grizzard, Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), Access Press was able to gain many insights into his ideals and his department’s outlook for the disability community.

On everyone’s mind these days, it seems, are the legislative cuts that were made to many of the services that directly affect members of the disability community, including Vocational Rehabilitation cuts in the State of Minnesota. “I don’t know the exact numbers [of cuts] in Minnesota,” Dr. Grizzard said, but he acknowledged that, “a drop [in] services is usually because of lack of money.” In tight economic times, like the current conditions, some states settle for an order of selection.

Dr. Grizzard was a Vocational Rehabilitation Director in Virginia for over six years and never opted for an order of selection. However, he said in his experience there was often a budget deficit and decisions that had to be made to help maximize the available funds. This situation often causes States go to an order of selection system for a variety of reasons. “You have to be able to leverage the money that you do have to keep from going to an order of selection system,” opined Dr. Grizzard.

But with the current economic situation in the United States, is there really hope for a person with a disability to get a job when faced with an equally qualified, non-disable person? Dr. Grizzard answered with an emphatic “Yes.” ODEP tracks and administers the demonstration projects and research grants that are in effect now to help people with disabilities. These grants are aimed at giving job training and increasing employment opportunities for people with disabilities. ODEP is currently working with the DOL in funding over 70 customized employment programs, and the results of such programs are already becoming readily apparent.

What Is Customized Employment?

Customized Employment is a negotiation between the job placement entity, the potential employee with a disability, and the employer, matching the abilities and skills of the employee with the needs and desires of the employer in order to better benefit all parties. Reasonable accommodations are sometimes made on the part of the employer, and made available for the employee; possible accommodations can be as minor as reduced work hours. In developing a customized employment situation, job negotiation can help distribute the workload among employees depending on individual skills and/or abilities, thus allowing for maximum productivity throughout the workplace. All over the country, these programs are working, sometimes even enhancing opportunities for increasing tele-work options. Tele-work options include taking the job to the person with a disability, allowing that individual to work within the advantages and adaptations of their own home. Transportation, which is often a big issue, then becomes a nonexistent barrier.

Measuring the Success of These Programs

Currently, there are approximately $60 million in ODEP grants in play, and “those grants need to show a positive result. If they don’t, we won’t continue the funding,” said Dr. Grizzard. The results must show that they are helping to get people with disabilities employment opportunities. ODEP has its own monitoring system to track those grants. The system involves staff members actually going out into the field evaluating and monitoring how effectively the grants are working.

ODEP also has a contract with Westat, an employee-owned research corporation serving agencies of the United States Federal Government, as well as businesses, foundations, and state and local governments. Westat will be offering an external and objective evaluation of the grants, with results as early as this spring.

Assistive Technology in The Workplace

Assistive Technology can be something as grandiose as a touch-talking device, which actually verbalizes sounds and words for a non-verbal person, or something as simple as a plastic finger splint to help an individual type with better speed and accuracy. Assistive Technology is something Dr. Grizzard champions, because, he says, “Assistive Technology has basically been one of the main phenomena that has changed the playing field for people with disabilities.” It’s true that with the leaps and bounds with which science and technology have advanced, people with disabilities now possess the capabilities to do jobs we would never had dreamed possible only twenty years ago, he said. Dr. Grizzard is especially interested in this issue because he is legally blind due to Retinitis Pigmentosa, which causes a loss of peripheral vision leading to “tunnel vision.”

Some of the currently funded research and the tele-work projects are beginning to demonstrate the feasibility of increasing the employment opportunities for people with disabilities to work virtually from their homes and not go to work sites. With High-Speed Internet and personal home computers becoming more and more the norm, this is becoming more and more of a reality. This is a major portion of the programs that many agencies are using. There are also nine states that are implementing a High School, High Tech grant basically focused on Seniors in High School, which encourages them to consider the field of Assistive Technology, general Technology and IT as potential employment options.

In the High School, High Tech program, businesses or employment partners are identified to work with various school entities, with job shadowing and mentoring opportunities available. This enables these individuals to have exposure and experience working in the field of technology. “This immersion into the field of tech, in a way, models itself after the involvement of the 508 section of the Rehabilitation Act regarding technology considerations for people with disabilities,” said Dr. Grizzard. “We’ve had meetings with the Department of Commerce to explore possible ways in which we can be involved in building upon and pursing advancements in technology to make sure that people with disabilities are not an afterthought, but at the forefront of any breakthroughs that are put out there for the general public to use.”

Last July, Dr. Grizzard spoke at a Department of Commerce seminar displaying the most recent advances in telecommunications technology. His main message was that when technological advancements are made, agencies such as the Department of Commerce need to include people with disabilities at the vanguard of those breakthroughs. After all, individuals with disabilities are probably the best to point out what needs to be developed, as well as flaws in or improvements needed to be made in current technologies.

Dr. Grizzard and members of his staff are developing what will hopefully be positive working relationships with IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, and Texas Instruments, among others. The company representatives are showing themselves to be very much open to these developing partnerships. When assistive technological advancements are made, often the relevance of that particular advancement is something people without disabilities find very inviting. For instance, as a person ages, whether they have a documented disability or not, he/she may develop visual deficits. Nowadays that individual can go to a computer with the ability to have fonts enlarged to suit specific, personal, visual needs. The officials at IBM, Microsoft, and TI, have said they are ready to talk to people with disabilities and schedule seminars on these very issues.

There is a password phrase to enter the “fraternity” at ODEP: “Hiring people with disabilities is good business for business.” These achievements have been accomplished through education and outreach. “We are trying to penetrate the top executives of the Fortune 500 companies, and we’re targeting the Society of Human Resource Management and other employment groups to get in front of all the HR folks at these companies. We just recently signed a memorandum with the Small Business Administration to encourage entrepreneurship among people with disabilities,” Dr. Grizzard said. “This is important because about two-thirds of the American workforce is either in entrepreneurial or small businesses with employees under 250 people.” The purpose of this strategic alliance memorandum is two-fold: to provide opportunities for people with disabilities to become entrepreneurs themselves with assistance, education and outreach in order for these individuals to become successful in business; to provide employees to the small businesses by increasing their applicant pool with people with disabilities; to sell them on the fact that people with disabilities can be an integral part of their business to help them reach their bottom line. Information is constantly being rolled out by ODEP on Corporate Tax breaks, and the advantages provided by its Job Accommodation Network at www.jan.wvu.edu, which is available to assist employers to accommodate a work location or a person with a disability. This has been very well received, he said.

Dr. Grizzard has been asked to return to Minnesota in September to speak at the Minnesota Business Leadership Network Employer Training event, the Minnesota State Council on Disabilities Annual Luncheon, and to address the Minnesota Chambers of Commerce and small businesses in order to further expand the commitment of these sectors and to increase the number of people with disabilities that are gainfully employed in Minnesota. Dr. Grizzard encourages people with disabilities and organizations who serve people with disabilities to visit two comprehensive websites, www.dol.gov/odep and www.disabilityinfo.gov, for the latest news and information.


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