In celebration of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, I want to share an online chat I had with Kathy Martinez, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Disability Employment Policy. We discussed the work of the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), the business case for hiring people with disabilities, enhancing the capacity of the Workforce Development System to meet the employment-related needs of people with disabilities, and much more.
The Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) was authorized by Congress in the Department of Labor’s FY 2001 appropriation. Recognizing the need for a national policy to ensure that people with disabilities are fully integrated into the 21st Century workforce, the Secretary of Labor delegated authority and assigned responsibility to the Assistant Secretary for Disability Employment Policy. ODEP is a sub-cabinet level policy agency in the Department of Labor.
Following is the conclusion of a two-part series of highlights from our conversation.
Our friends in the academic community have been extremely helpful getting your message out to the business community. Can you describe the ODEP/Wharton School project to articulate the business case for hiring people with disabilities?
Sure, I’d be happy to; it’s an exciting project. Obviously, we want employers to hire people with disabilities because it’s the right thing to do—all qualified people need to be given fair and equal opportunity to put their skills and talents to work. But we also need them to realize that it’s the smart thing to do for their business. In other words, we need to speak the language of business when we describe the “disability dividend.”
That’s why we teamed up with Dr. Peter Cappelli of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Over the last year or so, we’ve worked closely with him and his students to look closely at the myriad issues that impact whether or not companies are disability inclusive in their hiring efforts.
It probably won’t surprise you to hear that many of the companies that are less enlightened about disability employment have followed practices that have no basis in facts and figures. Rather, they stem from common myths—those things I talked about earlier, like lack of exposure and misconceptions about accommodations. So, we originally set out to develop a traditional business case showing the bottom-line benefits people with disabilities bring to a business. We assumed that was the route to behavior change. But focus groups and other research conducted in collaboration with Wharton have actually told us that using common business marketing principles is a better approach to countering negative stereotypes. So, this year, we’re continuing this project, but from a slightly different angle. We’re developing an employer engagement strategy that segments employers according to their current level of commitment to a disability inclusive workplace.
Notice I said engagement—the key to this strategy is really two-way communication. We plan to leverage best practices from inclusive businesses—those that have successfully integrated people with disabilities into their workforce—to serve as a catalyst for those businesses that have yet to do it. We know that peer-to-peer influence is a strong thing. We’ll also work to provide the tools, incentives and support that less advanced companies need to create a more inclusive workforce.
At Fedcap we are keenly interested in integrating workforce development and economic development to help people with barriers succeed in the workplace, including people with disabilities. How do initiatives to integrate workforce and economic development help people with disabilities?
Like the workforce development system, economic development initiatives are implemented mainly at the state and local level, to ensure that they take into account local workforce needs and trends. So the various initiatives that integrate the two really vary depend on where you are. Regardless, if they’re designed universally—that is, inclusively—any and all of them have the ability to benefit people with disabilities.
Also, the DEI program I mentioned earlier has a strong economic development dimension to it. As I said, this program is currently operational in 26 states. And in those states it works to improve employment outcomes for youth and adults who are unemployed, underemployed and/or receiving disability benefits through exemplary service delivery in the public workforce system, especially the American Job Center network funded by our sister DOL agency, ETA.
The key to achieving this goal, of course, is partnerships across systems. These systems include vocational rehabilitation, Medicaid, Social Security, transportation and others, as well as various economic and asset development programs, such as the Ticket-to-Work program. The DEI is about making connections, and, perhaps most important, it’s about making them where it matters most—at the state and local levels. That’s critical to effective economic development.
Is ODEP involved with the Workforce Innovation Fund and other innovative Labor Department initiatives on workforce development?
Directly no but indirectly yes. As you may know, this fund is a new federal grant program that supports innovative projects that seek to design evidence-based program strategies. The idea is to identify best practices that may have wide applicability, ones that could be replicated. And again the key is getting down to the state and local levels—where service delivery actually occurs.
Overall, we’re seeking ways to design and deliver better systems and remove administrative, statutory and regulatory barriers. It’s about aligning and integrating services so that we can get disadvantaged adults the skills they need. Obviously, this includes people with disabilities, so we certainly hope that many of the programs supported have a disability dimension.
Sector-based workforce training geared to the needs of industry is becoming widespread in workforce development, and in helping people with disabilities become employed in high-growth sectors. Can you cite some examples of sector-based workforce training and how they benefit people with disabilities?
Sector-based training is a great economic development strategy, because it takes into account regional variations in employers’ workforce needs. In this way, all types of sector-based training have the ability to benefit people with disabilities. The best for each individual person likely depends on where they live. Our nation’s community colleges are doing a great job in this area, and in September of last year, DOL announced $474.5 million in grants to assist them in expanding demand-driven skills training and strengthening their partnerships with local employers. But, we do know that regardless of geography and regional trends, certain industries are poised to grow in future years.
One of these is health care. Health-care occupations dominate the list of jobs predicted to be in most demand in coming years, and there is simply not enough talent in the pipeline. That is why we’ve done a few things around that industry in particular, hosting summits and partnering with key organizations, like the National Organization of Nurses with Disabilities.
Many of our programs at Fedcap include internship and mentoring components, which are instrumental in contributing to the success of people with barriers. Can you describe your Employment First State Leadership Mentor Program?
Sure! When you asked me earlier to highlight some of our accomplishments, I mentioned our work related to integrated employment. And this program is in many ways an outgrowth of that. First, it’s important to note that Employment First is not so much an initiative or program, but a concept. The first conveys that community-based, integrated employment should always be the first option for youth and adults with significant disabilities. Employment First started at the state level, with a handful of states making it policy and implementing service delivery strategies to make it happen. And it’s shown exemplary results. Based on the success of those Employment First states, we at ODEP are now working to promote it nationally in a coordinated manner.
The Employment First State Leadership Mentor Program is a key part of that. Under it, four states—three protégé states and one mentor state—received grants. Iowa, Oregon and Tennessee were the protégés and Washington State was the mentor, because it has really been a trailblazer in this area. Employment First is another great example of change at the state level; we’re simply serving as a channel for spreading it.
The Employment First Community of Practice is also a part of that. It’s a virtual meeting place for representatives from states participating in the grant program, along with many other states, so that they can share ideas and strategies. It gives them the opportunity to hear directly from leaders in this area across the nation. Currently 30 states participate in the Employment First Community of Practice.
Collaborative partnerships underpin so much of what we do. Can you describe ODEP collaborative initiatives with the Department of Defense, Employer Assistance and Resource Network, and Federal Partners in Transition Workgroup?
At ODEP, collaboration is our middle name! From our inception in 2001, effective partnerships have been critical to our progress, because disability employment is affected by so many other issues. The Federal Partners in Transition Workgroup is a great example. We do a lot of work related to youth, in particular making sure that youth grow up with an employment mindset and have the resources and support they need to successfully transition from school to the world of work. But, there is simply no way that we can achieve the change that’s needed in isolation. The Federal Partners in Transition Workgroup allows us to do so.
For example, last year we joined forces to host the first-ever national online dialogue on transition issues. This dialogue—essentially a virtual town hall—invited members of the public to help us learn what works, what doesn’t and where change is needed, with particular focus on how various federal regulations impact the ability of youth with disabilities to become college or career ready. The input we got was amazing and is now helping shape our policy strategies going forward.
Other collaborations include our Technical Assistance centers, which are collaborative themselves. You mentioned the Employer Assistance and Resource Network in particular. That’s part of our Employer Technical Assistance center, which is run by Cornell University’s Employment and Disability Institute but has many partners. Our work with the Department of Defense has to do with the Workforce Recruitment Program, or WRP, which is a fantastic program that facilitates the hiring of college students and recent graduates with disabilities into the federal workforce and by private employers. It’s been in operation since 1995 and has connected more than 6,000 students and recent graduates with work opportunities.
Can you provide an overview of ODEP strategic partnerships to enhance employment opportunities for people with disabilities with groups like HSC Foundations, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, Partnership for Public Service, etc.?
As I said, partnerships are critical to ODEP’s work to advance employment opportunities for people with disabilities, and they have been since our inception. The primary vehicle for formal partnerships is our Alliance program. Currently we have active Alliances with 10 organizations. Not surprisingly, many of them focus on employment or disability or both, for example, the Society for Human Resource Management and the U.S. Business Leadership Network. Others are with non-profits in the disability community, such as the HSC Foundation.
But our Alliances with groups not so obviously connected to disability are just as, if not more, important, because we know that in order to really move the needle on disability employment, we need to expand the conversation outside the proverbial box. That is why we have Alliances with non-disability-focused groups like the Higher Education Recruitment Consortium.
How is ODEP working to improve transition outcomes for youth and young adults?
We have a number of great initiatives related to youth. And they all stem from what we call the Guideposts for Success. The Guideposts represent what research and practice have identified as key educational and career development interventions that make a positive difference in the lives of all youth, including youth with disabilities. They were developed following an extensive review of research and best practices in education and workforce development.
There are five altogether: school-based preparatory experiences; career preparation and work-based learning experiences; youth development and leadership; connecting activities; and family involvement and supports. As one example of how we put these Guideposts into action, we recently unveiled an online toolkit to help youth with disabilities understand how an Individualized Learning Plan, or ILP, can help them set and reach their educational and career goals.
Also, because the ability to manage one’s health is critical to going to school and transitioning into employment, last year we commissioned a study to better understand the relationship between disability, health and wellness, and transition outcomes for youth with disabilities. The findings of this study were recently published. Another major component of our youth work is our Soft Skills materials—a written curriculum and a set of videos with an accompanying discussion guide designed to sharpen the communication and other soft skills of young workers, both with and without disabilities.
Of course, the Federal Partners in Transition Workgroup I mentioned earlier is a large component of our youth work