Employment First: A Promising Hope, but at Risk of Being Watered Down

Employment First: A Promising Hope, but at Risk of Being Watered Down

Last month, I had the privilege of speaking at two statewide disability employment conferences, one in New York and one in Minnesota. These events focused on “Employment First.” This concept 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.

Those of you who regularly read this blog know that I have articulated the current sad state of segregation and non-work services being provided to the large majority of individuals currently in the disability system. Employment First represents an opportunity to reset priorities back to where they should be – providing people with meaningful and integrated work from the start. But it is important to recognize that this is not a simple problem with an easy prescription.

It is only after we understand the meaning and scope of the needed shift in expectations that we can begin to understand what Employment First really means and how it challenges our current system. The problem that continues to perpetuate a segregated work system is the fact that most individuals with disabilities newly entering the disability service system still continue to enter segregated facilities. About $0.80 of every state and federal rehabilitation dollar spent for day program and employment services in state developmental service systems across the US support segregated services.

Regarding Employment First policies, I believe it is not enough to have meetings, “consensus statements” or “white papers.” These may represent a fair start, but let’s not confuse talking with progress or outcomes. We need legislation, public policy, and funding to change significantly. Otherwise, we water down the promise of Employment First by only paying lip service, with few real consequences for inaction.

Here is the golden nugget that most states cannot bring themselves to – we need to publicly acknowledge that the segregated nature of much of the disability vocational training system to date has failed. It 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.

Employment First coverUntil we stop placing people in segregated and/or non-work facilities, the likelihood of systems change, Employment First or not, will be small. I have written a manual that goes into this argument in more detail. It also details the steps needed to make Employment First a Reality. To learn more: https://trn-store.com/employment-first