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By Lance Robertson, ACL Administrator and Assistant Secretary for Aging
Throughout the month of October, our nation has been celebrating National Disability Employment Awareness Month and the many contributions of workers with disabilities.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of NDEAM and the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These milestones offer us an opportunity to recognize the great progress we have made towards advancing competitive integrated employment for people with disabilities and to reflect on the work that still needs to be done to knock down the barriers that continue to keep far too many people with disabilities out of the workforce.
Research and on-the-ground implementation of evidence-based approaches and interventions are critical to knowing what works, arming the field with the information needed to address the employment disparities experienced by people with disabilities.
On Wednesday, ACL’s National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR) led a virtual NDEAM celebration focused on the past, present, and future of disability employment research.
NIDILRR currently administers around 47 grants that focus on employment. These range from postdoctoral grants and small business innovation research grants to Rehabilitation Research and Training Centers and Rehabilitation Engineering Research Centers. NIDILRR’s work includes both cross-disability research and research on increasing opportunities for people with specific types of disabilities—such as psychiatric disabilities, intellectual and developmental disabilities, physical disabilities, and sensory disabilities.
This week’s event featured lessons and take-aways from decades of research and touched on many topics, including the importance of substantive early work experiences, the role of bias and expectations in employment outcomes, the shift from one-size-fits-all to individualized work supports, and how different policies can expand or hinder employment opportunities.
In addition to this event, ThinkWork! at the University of Massachusetts Boston Institute for Community Inclusion hosted a webinar earlier this month to highlight findings from a five-year NIDILRR grant on advancing employment opportunities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Investments in research and translating knowledge into action are just some of the ways ACL is working to close the employment gap for people with disabilities.
ACL is also investing in rapid innovation by reaching out to the business community. Last fall, we launched the Inclusive Talent Pipeline for American Businesses prize challenge, because we knew there were great ideas out there that could help modernize employment recruitment, training, and retention for Americans with disabilities. The challenge offers $380,000 in prize money to be awarded in three phases. We received more than 50 creative proposal submissions, and we are currently working with the five finalists:
- The ARC of Southwest Indiana,
- FALA Technologies,
- Kennesaw State University,
- KPMG, and
In addition, just a few weeks ago, ACL’s Administration on Disabilities launched the Employment Training and Technical Assistance Center. The center will provide an array of disability employment tools and resources tailored to the needs of our grantees.
While ending employment disparities has always been important, the COVID-19 pandemic has added new urgency to this work.
We cannot let this pandemic shake our resolve—and we haven’t. I am in awe of the determination and creativity with which our networks and partners on the ground have adapted to maintain critical disability employment services.
For example, TURN Community Services in Utah helped individuals receiving supports assess and understand their risk level so they could make informed choices about their employment, helped individuals access personal protective equipment and adopt safety measures, and worked with employers to adjust hours in order to reduce potential risks associated with taking public transportation. Many providers around the country also are using technology to continue coaching and other employment supports.
Since the pandemic began, ACL’s Self Advocacy Resource and Technical Assistance Center worked with Green Mountain Self-Advocates to create plain-language resources for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, including a new plain language booklet for employees. The guide describes many of the federal rules in place to protect workers from COVID-19 and offers information and tools to guide decisions about going out in public during the pandemic.
As difficult as the pandemic has been, it has also forced us to innovate and do things differently. For businesses and service providers alike, it has created a runway for change and we know that many of these changes will outlast the virus itself.
With employers around the country rethink where and how work happens, we have an opportunity to create workplaces that are more inclusive and allow people of all abilities to contribute their skills and talents.