From the Community: Provide meaningful employment choices for all

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and as a Twin Cities disability organization we celebrate the opportunity to promote hiring people with disabilities and draw attention to the challenges ahead.

At Opportunity Partners, our employment programs – the cornerstone upon which our organization was founded in 1953 – provide individuals with disabilities with training, placement, job coaching and support and even transportation in some cases. These employment choices range from independent, competitive employment to supported community teams and center-based work options.

More and more, we see center-based work options falling under greater scrutiny as society takes steps to move closer to a goal of full inclusion and competitive wages for workers with disabilities. Minnesota’s Olmstead Plan promises changes for people with disabilities to experience more integration and inclusion in their communities in areas of employment, as well as housing, transportation, services, education, healthcare and community engagement.

We are optimistic about a future of greater opportunities and inclusion for people with disabilities. And in order to create a disability service system where individuals can make meaningful choice and have self-determination, Minnesotans with disabilities and their families must have the strongest voice in the conversation. “NOTHING ABOUT US WITHOUT US,” is what we hear, and we must listen.

In our 60 years of experience, we know center-based work and supported community teams can help individuals with disabilities acquire skills, build confidence, and gain social benefits like time management and relationships with staff and peers. For many, these are integral steps on the path to employment independence.

Phillip is one of many success stories. He graduated from our innovative Certified Learning Platforms in office assistant and professional cleaning (in collaboration with Dunwoody Workforce Training) and retail (part of the Walgreens REDI program). This led to an independent, competitive job as a housekeeper at a Twin Cities senior property. “I feel like I made it to the big league,” Phillip said.

Yet for other individuals, the idea of working independently in the community can be scary or even debilitating – even with the support of a trusted job coach. We need to advocate for these individuals and their right to have choices too.

We salute the many companies that partner with organizations like ours to meet their staffing needs, diversify their workforce and contribute to a stronger community. These companies have uncovered the benefits that come from hiring workers with disabilities like increased team morale and reduced turnover and training costs.

But even as our economy has improved and unemployment rates in the general population have inched downward, the unemployment rates for people with disabilities remain very high.

For any job seeker, disability or not, the key to employment success is finding the right fit. This can take time. There may be a few misses before hitting the target. Opportunity Partners needs a large pool of employers in order to find the right match for the many candidates with disabilities so eager to work.

Last year, Opportunity Partners reached an all-time record for us of 147 competitive, independent job placements in the community. And with the support of an outstanding business community, we’re convinced we can do even better.

Another disability policy priority we are following is the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. Passed by Congress in 2014, the act helps job seekers access training and support to succeed in competitive employment. Under the new law, individuals with disabilities age 24 and younger will no longer be allowed to work for less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour unless they first receive pre-employment transition services at school and try vocational rehabilitation services.

We look forward to the potential outcomes of this legislation, but it’s critical that innovative transition services be developed and funded at the state level to ensure young adults receive employment preparedness services prior to completing high school and avoid falling through the service gap following graduation.

At Opportunity Partners, we’re excited to be working with the St. Paul Public Schools to provide transition students paid work experiences in a variety of businesses.

The students earn minimum wage while trying out jobs in clerical, retail, childcare, production, food service and hospital settings.

By setting expectations early for work success, we’ll see more young adults with disabilities ready to move into independent or semi-independent employment in the future.

During National Disability Employment Awareness Month, let’s recognize the diverse needs of our disability community, celebrate the menu of options available and strive to keep improving as we move forward together.

 

Lori Schluttenhofer is vice president, vocational and habilitation services at Opportunity Partners, a Twin Cities nonprofit organization helping 2,000 people with disabilities live, learn and work more independently.