Employability is a Given, Not Line to Cross

Employability is a Given, Not Line to Cross

During a recent training course about supported employment I gave, I found myself in a debate with a manager of an agency over whether people with disabilities should be “presumed employable.” I was most discouraged by this professional’s statement that the “overwhelming majority of these consumers are not employable.” To me, that is the single biggest obstacle people face – the low expectations by others.

Interestingly enough, in the US, current law mandates a presumption of employability. The reauthorized Rehabilitation Act begins with a presumption of ability that people can achieve employment and other rehabilitation goals regardless of the severity of disability, if appropriate services and supports are made available. The concept of employability has been replaced with one of “employment outcome.”

Despite this, I still often find myself debating with others whether the presumption of employability means everyone (as I believe), or just those judged as capable.

Ultimately, it is the belief in what people can achieve, despite the obstacles, that will drive their employment opportunities. And for this to happen, we need to re-think people who have a developmental disability or a mental illness as someone whose life is to never have a decent home or job because of some focus on a belief in a chronic, never-be cured aspect of their lives.

I have been struggling for years to advance the notion that people in sheltered workshops deserve the right to live and work in the community in real jobs and homes with the rest of us. I believe a huge body of research, national outcomes, and our collective experiences have demonstrated that it is more than possible. And my sometimes exasperated reaction to these kinds of debates probably reflect frustration with people in management particularly who dismiss these notions as unrealistic or requiring much more money. I think more money can help, but the reality is the service system already gets a great deal of money, but it is spent unwisely -on buildings, excessive salaries, etc.

Not too long ago, my colleague and long-time friend Bob Lawhead testified before Congress about the wasted spending and poor outcomes of sheltered workshops and day training programs. At the same time, a Congressional investigation found excessive management salaries and deal-making going on in some of these agencies. Can we justify a CEO earning $700,000, when hundred of workers labor in her workshop at sub-minimum wage?

I do not think it is not bad or evil somehow to have been taught that sheltered workshops (or institutions) are needed for a certain percentage of people. 20 years ago I had that belief myself.

But I do think it is wrong to still have that belief after you have been exposed to what is possible today – and that is real jobs and real homes, regardless of disability.