For the past few decades, a tremendous amount of time and money has been spent on integrating people with disabilities into the non-disabled community. As part of this process, how employment integration is defined continues to evolve and there is a small group advocating for “Employment First” legislation that would embody the following definition:
“Expecting, encouraging, providing, creating, and rewarding regular integrated employment in the workforce at minimum or competitive wages and benefits as the first and preferred outcome for working-age youth and adults with disabilities especially for those with complex and significant disabilities, for whom job placement in the past has been limited, or has not traditionally occurred” (MN Employment First Report—September 30, 2011).
According to this same report, “The employment rate for individuals with disabilities reported by the Office of Disability Employment Policy, is less than one-third that of people without disabilities (21 percent compared to 70 percent respectively)”. I do not consider this statement accurate. Based on reports that I cite in my editorial posted at www.merrickinc.org/barksbytes.html, I conclude that there are approximately 106,000 people in the state with a developmental or intellectual disability (D/ID, formerly referred to as mental retardation) and DHS reports that 27,750 citizens receive related services, meaning 78,250 with D/ID are not “in the system”. The state demographer reports that 84 percent of the population is of working age which means that 65,730 people with D/ID outside the system are between the ages of 16 and 64. Therefore it could be argued that 74 percent of people with D/ID of working age are in the workforce at minimum or competitive wages and benefits since they are living in their communities without any public support—not the 21 percent cited in the MN Employment First Report.
This leads to the second part of this issue concerning the definition of “integration” and it seems unlikely that the stake-holders supporting the D/ID population will soon come to a consensus definition. Moreover, in a very real way integration is a choice. For example, a retired couple that chooses to live in an assisted living complex with their same-aged peers would not think of themselves as being segregated. So, if integration is defined and chosen by the individual, perhaps defining segregation would be helpful in this discussion and I offer the following: “Segregation is the forcible separation of a group or class from the rest of society”.
From my view this term does not apply to the 27,750 people with D/ID served by group homes and DT&H programs in Minnesota because their placement was chosen by an interdisciplinary team that included themselves, their guardian/family, and an independent case manager. Therefore, if people with D/ID are not segregated, they must be integrated. Beyond the reality of integration as an individual choice, as Martin Luther King, Junior said—“True integration will be achieved by true neighbors who are willingly obedient to unenforceable obligations.”
This quote suggests to me that if we genuinely listen to the person with D/ID to identify their preferences, determine and build on their skills, and actively search for connections in their neighborhoods—businesses will hire them and communities accept them because they add value, not out of charity or because of some government mandate. It all comes down to doing the right thing, at the right time, one person at a time, without all the hyperbole coming from the ivory tower.
Is working in a facility-based DT&H program a good choice for people with D/ID? Yes if that is the individual’s preferred choice. Moreover, having state legislation that makes “minimum or competitive wages and benefits the first and preferred outcome” is contrary to person-centered planning. Legislators need to hear the thoughts of their constituents on this issue.
Can more people currently served by DT&H programs be competitively employed? If that is their choice, yes, and better progress will be made if we stop setting goals that are based on statewide statistics. For instance, the MN Employment First Report references the Fourth Summit of the Employment First Coalition that was held on September 30, 2011, around the question, “What will it take to double employment of Minnesotans with disabilities by 2015?” The answer is we cannot double the 74 percent employment rate of the statewide D/ID population, how-ever, we can work on increasing the number of DT&H clients of working age in the work-force at minimum or competitive wages if that is the individual’s preferred choice.
Barker is executive director Merrick, Inc., a St. Paul-based social services agency. He has many years experience in human services and has been an active member of many state task forces and committees.