Thoughts on Employment First: Don’t Water it Down!

Thoughts on Employment First: Don’t Water it Down!

Employment First refers to a relatively new movement to change public policy for individuals with disabilities who receive publicly funded day services. Employment First begins as an effort to change the expectations people have about the ability of people with disabilities to work – in policy, in practice, and in person. It refers to having employment be the primary expected goal for working-age adults with disabilities in government-funded day services, and for those services to support that realization of that goal.

Employment First presents a great opportunity, but there is a real concern that new employment initiatives, while well-intentioned, will be developed incompletely and ultimately again will do little to change a largely segregated and entrenched vocational system. That would be a tragedy.

We must avoid having Employment First go through a process of misunderstood implementation, leading to an all-too familiar conclusion about new innovations that are perceived as being attempted and falling short, or “We tried that and it didn’t work…”

TRN has released a new manual on this topic that I authored. Most likely the most challenging point of this manual on Employment First is its position to publicly acknowledge that the segregated nature of much of the disability vocational training system to date has not only failed to produce good job outcomes for people with disabilities, but also has acted at times as an obstacle to people with disabilities leading fulfilling lives. Facility-based sheltered work has been a barrier by adding stigma to its workers, paying predominantly sub-minimum wages, and wasting time and resources that could be spent in actual employment. In addition, service components of much of disability job training, such as intrusive behavior management, labeling, and other artifacts of the human services system, have created further barriers to job success.

Politically, many agencies, including national associations, have tried to focus on growing integrated services as a strategy for change. One noted, “We believe that the best strategy …is to focus on developing more jobs, as well as the programs, services, and supports that people with I/DD need … The employment and services marketplace will evolve accordingly and unwanted employment options will fade from the scene.” (Arc of the US, 2011) Unfortunately, twenty years of employment outcome data has shown that this has not proven sufficient. Segregated facilities are entrenched and growing larger in the numbers of people served every day.

We need to acknowledge that this must change. This begins by recognizing that the segregated, facility-based approach will not simply fade away. There needs to be agency commitments to immediately end new referrals to segregated models and, secondly, put in place strategies to downsize facility-based models over a reasonable time span. These need to be part of Employment First.