Employment First: Achieving Integrated Employment for All

Earlier this week, NCWD/Youth staff had the pleasure of participating in Washington, DC’s Achieving Employment First Conference sponsored by the Georgetown University Center for Child and Human Development. According to the Association of People Supporting Employment First (APSE) Employment First is a concept in which “employment in the general workforce is the first and preferred outcome in the provision of publicly funded services for all working age citizens with disabilities, regardless of level of disability.”

People with disabilities want real jobs with real wages and more and more states are realizing that successful implementation of Employment First policies and philosophies are a way to get there. These policies also facilitate the workforce inclusion of people with the most significant disabilities. In October 2012, Washington, DC joined this growing movement when the mayor issued a proclamation declaring DC an Employment First state.

Washington, DC is still new to the Employment First movement. In total, 24 states have an official Employment First policy, 8 of which have passed legislation and 16 of which have an Executive Order or directive on the topic. An additional 12 states have begun Employment First initiatives, but have no formal policy. There is also a distinction among states as some have a cross-disability focus, while others specifically target individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. One of the early leaders in Employment First and the only state to have both legislation and an Executive Order on the issue is Washington state, where full implementation of the Working Age Adult Policy was achieved in 2006. Following this implementation, between 2007 and 2009 individuals in integrated employment increased by 54 percent and in 2011, 89% of adults with developmental disabilities were engaged in integrated employment in Washington.

Because states are in varying stages of Employment First exploration and implementation, the Administration on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AIDD) has funded several organizations under the Partnerships in Employment Systems Change initiative to further enrich state collaboration. Additionally, the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) selected Washington state to participate in the Employment First State Leadership Mentor Program as a mentor state for protégé states Iowa, Oregon, and Tennessee. These states will receive technical assistance and funding from ODEP to implement their state plans on Employment First.

Below are some strategies used by Washington state and other states around the country to implement Employment First initiatives:

  • Raise expectations for ALL youth with disabilities so that they know they can and should enter the workforce;
  • Engage youth with disabilities in the processes of self-exploration and career exploration so they can find jobs that coordinate with their strengths and interests;
  • Train practitioners on customized employment principles. According to the Griffin-Hammis Associates approach to customized employment, we all customize our jobs in some way based on our interests and abilities. While, the average job-seeker will customize after being hired, for many people with significant disabilities customization is needed prior to beginning work in order to be successful on the job;
  • Raise awareness among potential employees of the opportunities for integrated employment in the community;
  • Share employment success stories with employers to alleviate fears and remove stereotypes;
  • Create partnerships with secondary and post-secondary institutions to ensure the expectation for work and necessary training skills are being taught;
  • Ensure all necessary stakeholders are invested in the effort collaboratively; and
  • Measure and track successes.

Remember, ALL people with disabilities can work and receive competitive wages. It’s up to all of us to ensure the policies and strategies are in place to achieve this goal.

To learn more about what your state is doing around Employment First, visit these related resources:

In order to fully achieve Employment First goals, it is also critical that youth with disabilities have an awareness of the jobs available to them and the necessary skills to be successful at their chosen career paths. NCWD/Youth has several helpful resources on the topic including:

By Dana Fink, Assistant Project Coordinator with the National Collaborative on Workforce & Disability for Youth at the Institute for Educational Leadership’s Center for Workforce Development

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