by Rob Crawford, of the Life Development Institute

Over the past several months, I have been able to meet and talk with people from federal agencies, entrepreneurs, businesses, and grassroots organizations looking for signs of progress in employment policies and practices regarding expanding the workforce participation of adults with disabilities.

Depending on whom you are meeting with, several dynamics are consistent:

Federal and state employment program administrators/managers recognize policy/program service inequities between “mild” types of disabilities and others categorized as “significant.”

Since the Clinton administration, this segregation of conditions has effectively shut out people with high incidence “mild” disabilities such as learning disabilities, ADHD, Level 1 Autism, mood and anxiety disorders from having access to both appropriate and available services. No agency official I met was able to offer any insights as to whether this “DisLabeling” issue will be resolved or is even being discussed as an eligibility policy issue or included in upcoming competitive grants for model demonstration programs. In other words, no government official or agency “owns” this issue.

National unemployment rates among people with disabilities persist in being disproportionately higher than any other demographic group.

Private and public sector employers continue to struggle with embracing available employment hiring incentives/subsidies, effectively know how to tap into this labor pool, and in general, avoid inclusion of this labor segment into comprehensive diversity/inclusion strategic planning. There are creative and well-funded PR efforts underway through national campaigns such as “What Can You Do?” and “Think Beyond the Label” to generate business confidence. They have not yet resulted in tangible/concrete improvement of employment outcomes, hiring practices, and job advancement of PwD.

Emergence of collaboration between/among government programs, community organizations, and the business community.

The dismal fiscal & economic reality for local and state municipalities is compelling the forging of alliances among agencies and providers who have in the past stayed within their own particular service silos. Although there are a number of government programs dedicated to increasing employment among disadvantaged and underserved members of the workforce, they have a number of operational limitations. Among them are an over-reliance on government funding, duplication of efforts, segregation of clients based on conflicting eligibility definitions, and lack of full participation between business, education, and government entities. The way forward to survive and sustain services is through local efforts leveraging mutual resources in building true public/private employment and disability partnerships. This will require tremendous levels of trust, cooperation and mutual risk taking to make such networks possible.

Rebuilding community vendor networks of direct service providers is necessary to implement/sustain successful employment networks. This is where independent contractors (primary role providing pre-vocational training/direct placement to job seekers with disabilities) makes a difference because of the intimate, ongoing nature of the human relationship between job developer and the person looking for work. They understand the differences between functional assets and limitations using strength-based placements, rather than being tied to IQ test scores, diagnostic categories, or educational attainment. Larger agencies can’t bring this human dynamic of qualitative from-the-gut decision making to bear as effectively or efficiently. It simply takes a lot of time to build a relationship that looks beyond the empirical data.

Independent contractors also cultivate relationships and work directly with employers through site visits, assessing essential functions of the job from a first-person environmental scan and then can pre-screenings potential candidates to ensure the best match for all parties. This element is a huge missing piece of the existing overall employment services puzzle, and more than finding the funding to deliver these services, the most critical part of creating a sustainable effort. Creating these types of local efforts will almost have to start from scratch, because government consolidation of employment programs/funding for people with mild & significant disabilities has forced small organizations and independent entities to either close or serve private clients to survive.

Working towards the creation of a post-DisLabeled world

When looking at civil rights and equal protections under the law as it applies to other recognized minorities, one does not find health care provided for one racial group, but not another. Our rights to religious freedom are guaranteed equally for believers and non-believers alike. Most citizens living in progressive social democracies would not tolerate any such blatant, preferential treatment or limitation of rights by correctly seeing this as inherently prejudicial and unfair.

But within the American system of employment, health care, housing, and educational services, adults with disabilities have tolerated being categorized into a two-tier caste system of services based on governmental definitions of “mild” and “significant” conditions that unnecessarily pits disability groups against each other in competing for ever-decreasing resources.

While we will never achieve a completely post-DisLabeled society, it is possible to provide services in an equitable & responsible manner through automatic recognition of all disabilities (defined in DSM-IV R & ADAA) for service/accommodation eligibility.

Rather than wait for this to happen on its own, it is up to adults who have disabilities to begin their own community organizations/campaigns that take this issue to the general public. There has not been a universal cry for reform from our own mouths. We have not had our historical Selma March moment that galvanized us as a people-not as special interest subgroups-but as a constituency to be paid attention to, that can impact elections, influence corporate branding, and realize our potential to be included in all areas of civic planning and discourse.

The generation of pioneers who helped in the passage of ADA have not recruited this generation of PwD. Their work is unfinished and it is now the work of all of us with disability to push the Mission of social justice, inclusion and equity forward. Until we work with all hands joined in common cause, we can’t be satisfied with continued exclusions, limitations or segregations of any person with a recognized disabling condition from the most basic of services or reasonable adjustment considerations due to MisLabeling misuse/abuse