Advancing Disability Employment During a Time of Testing

In President Biden’s Inaugural address to the nation, he said that we are living in “a time of testing” that requires boldness to address the cascading crises of our era. One of the leading national challenges before us is employment. This national challenge is real – and it has disproportionately affected people with disabilities seeking competitive integrated employment. A U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report released last month found that in 2020, 17.9 percent of persons with a disability were employed, down from 19.3 percent in 2019.

Prior to joining ACL, I served as an executive director at a center for independent living providing competitive integrated employment supports to jobseekers with disabilities in central Iowa. I witnessed first-hand many of the barriers that contribute to the disability employment gap. For example, physical access to the worksite was a barrier for many jobseekers, especially for those who lived in rural communities. In response, I would often encourage prospective employers to provide flexible remote work arrangements, but I was not always successful. With the onset of the pandemic, many of the arguments against remote work arrangements fell by the wayside as telework became the default for millions of workers. As a result of this “testing,” employers around the country have, by and large, determined that work from home arrangements are not only feasible, but in many cases they can enhance productivity while reducing overhead costs. This paradigm shift resulting from our “new normal” presents a unique opportunity to break down a long-standing barrier to inclusion for jobseekers with disabilities.

As I continue to transition from my home in Iowa to our nation’s capital, I am reminded each day of how ACL investments have a positive ripple effect in communities across the country. To help build our economy back better, I look forward to strengthening ACL’s work to promote disability employment, including by using the Administration on Disabilities’ grants and technical assistance efforts to test innovative new ideas for ensuring that all communities are more inclusive.

As we celebrate Developmental Disability Awareness Month, I would like to put a spotlight on several initiatives and announce two exciting ACL employment updates focused on addressing one of my leading priorities – achieving economic security and mobility for people with disabilities.

In Georgia, two University Centers for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDDs) are working to support the increasing number of students with autism that are attending college, many of whom are struggling to matriculate or access services and successfully compete for jobs following graduation. The Georgia College Transition Partnership pilot team is being led by UCEDDs at the University of Georgia and Georgia State University with support from the UCEDD Community Based Transition Partnership Planning Grant in collaboration with other community stakeholders.

As we work to reverse the current national disability employment trendline, businesses are another critical partner. So often, businesses that want to diversify their workforce may not have the tools and resources to create talent pipelines inclusive of people with disabilities. To help address this challenge, I am pleased to announce the round two finalists for ACL’s Inclusive Pipeline Prize Challenge. My hope is that the innovative strategies that surfaced from this initiative can offer a model that other businesses can replicate to reach a wider and more diverse talent pool.

At the national level, ACL announced a new Disability Employment Technical Assistance Center in October to support our Administration on Disabilities grantee networks (Centers for Independent Living, Protection and Advocacy systems, State DD Councils, Traumatic Brain Injury State Partnership Program, and UCEDDs) as they promote competitive integrated employment. This month, we created an online technical assistance websiteto strengthen the capacity of our grantees to address disability employment and to share tools and resources more effectively across AoD programs. And, to help guide our technical assistance work moving forward with this Center, we are proud to announce the members of the Disability Employment TA Task Force from across the country. We recognize it takes a team effort to support ACL’s networks as they advance systems change, innovation, and collaboration.

Finally, as we look to the future, I believe technology offers a golden opportunity to test new ways of doing business and foster more inclusion within our workplace communities. Shortly after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic within the healthcare sector, we’ve observed how telemedicine improved access to care in rural areas and enabled doctors to engage with caregivers who might not have been around for an in-person visit. And, as we get Americans back to work in a post-pandemic environment, we have an opportunity to more closely examine and understand how technology and tools such as mixed reality and artificial intelligence can break down barriers for people with Developmental  Disabilities so they can enter and thrive in the workplace.

The future looks bright as we boldly test many new ideas.

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