Like a two-sided coin, the advocacy movement of Employment First has two core linked components.
The first side is about ending obsolete practices – to phase out the needless segregation, less-than-minimum wages, and limited work tasks given to people with disabilities that make up much of sheltered work.
The second side is to provide a system that supports, for every individual with a disability, a preference for quality employment services that are individualized. These are services that lead to well-matched jobs to enhance productivity, social success, and wages in community integrated businesses.
The success of both goals are interdependent. Moving people with disabilities out of sheltered workshops does not achieve the goal of a quality life if, after leaving, they remain excluded from typical community life, and instead sit home doing nothing, or be relegated to day programs focusing on non-vocational activities, or fail in poorly-matched and weakly-supported jobs.
And this is what might happen if states close workshops without investing in supported employment services. If states just maintain their supported employment for the small percentage of people receiving those services (about 22% nationally in the US), this will only perpetuate a serious bottleneck to employment people with significant disabilities have faced for the last 30 years. New services must be expanded or incubated to be able to serve more people.
In addition, the level of quality of such services varies widely from place to place. Far too few agencies are well versed in marketing planning, job analysis and customization, or naturally sustainable job support strategies. A commitment to cutting edge service is a needed investment.
But, as well, ending a segregated approach with demonstrably poor outcomes must be part of the discussion of what needs to change. We cannot just ignore this half of the goal. Many of the large disability service agencies take the position that segregated facilities will just “fade away on their own” (to quote one such position paper) once better employment services are offered. But that is overly simplistic and has proven untrue over time. It will take proactive steps to end the current reliance on sheltered employment as a solution to work for people with disabilities.
If we consider both sides of Employment First, then we must acknowledge three basic conclusions.
- First, change won’t occur until we freeze referrals to sheltered workshops, as is finally now being done in several states. Then there must be an active process to downsize the census over time.
- Two, offering quality employment services to many more people requires a large investment in capacity-building. This includes not only core basic training for the new staff that must be hired, but also in-service development to greatly increase the quality of career planning, job development, and job support. Many agencies still only provide rudimentary levels of these skill sets.
- And, finally, if established agencies are to successful change their missions and services, they must have access to technical assistance on organizational restructuring. Agency conversion can be complex and fraught with land mines, from family resistance, management restructuring, and the changing of agency mission and staff organization. Agencies taking this leap must be offered support, guidance and the resources necessary for them to succeed.