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Guest opinion

Why aren't people with disabilities part of Az economic equation?

Upon her recent return from the National Governors Association meeting, Gov. Jan Brewer touted Arizona's economic recovery. Unfortunately, Arizonans with disabilities continue to be left out of the state's economic success and blueprint.

Among Arizonans with disabilities, only one in five are employed. This fact continues to cause an immense loss of economic productivity and investment for this state; places unsustainable pressure on our current welfare system; and severely limits the quality of life for the majority of these Arizonans, many who have no income.

There is a business case to be made for correcting this and can be addressed immediately with state policy solutions to promote economic inclusion for Arizonans with disabilities.

Presently, however, there is little discussion or focus on this population of 730,000 Arizonans. We automatically expect less from them and presume they prefer charity instead of employment. In 2008, the federal government spent more than $357 billion to support working-age people with disabilities, many of them who are without a job.

Also to be considered in the equation is how many aging parents-turned-caregivers rightfully so worry about what will happen to their children with disabilities when the caregiver dies and no one is responsible for their subsequent care. Meanwhile, states grapple with how to care for a growing population of people with disabilities on limited and oftentimes reduced funding.

Gov. Brewer learned about the critical importance of addressing this issue for state governments, families and individuals from Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, who declared employment of people with disabilities as the key initiative of the National Governors Association over the past year.

"It's the change in mindset away from charity to the expectation that you, the state, want to be my business partner in helping me solve a business problem," he explained.

Gov. Markell released a blueprint for governors from this year-long study on policy recommendations to improve employment outcomes for people with disabilities, called A Better Bottom Line: Employing People with Disabilities.  The goal is to integrate people with disabilities into the workforce, resulting in integrated employment that improves their quality of life while boosting business' bottom line.

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The following are a few takeaways from the report. While Arizona misses the mark on some of these recommendations, it is in step with others - a step in the right direction.

Recommendation No. 1:  Numerous examples were given to make disability employment part of the state workforce development strategy, including Employment First.

An Employment First state prioritizes employment as the first option when designing policies, programs and investments to support the employment of people with disabilities. Most of these states invest in supported employment, which refers to support for jobs, or the use of job coaches, in the competitive labor market.

The study reports that the supported employment program yields a $1.21 benefit to taxpayers for every dollar spent. And according to the Social Security Administration (SSA), SSA disability beneficiaries who are employed through vocational rehabilitation support provide a return on investment of $7 for every dollar spent. More than 30 states are already adopting strategies in line with Employment First.

While talks have been going on over the last few years for Arizona to become an Employment First state, it has yet to be accomplished. Arizona has not prioritized spending for supported and integrated employment. In fact, there was a dramatic 87 percent reduction in funding by the state's Vocational Rehabilitation program in supported employment from 2011 to 2012.

The Division of Developmental Disabilities serves the majority of employment-aged individuals in segregated, more costly facility-based programs compared with integrated employment options (For more information on the status of disability employment in Arizona, click here.

Recommendation No. 2: Support businesses in their efforts to hire people with disabilities.

For the most part, businesses are willing to hire people with disabilities, but they need a long-term partner to ensure success. Governors can provide leadership in building long-term partnerships with these businesses by directing state agencies to assign a single point of contact with business experience from the state to work with employers over the long term, provide skills assessment and training, and navigate the complexities of benefits related to workers with disabilities.

Arizona is on track in this area. Many people with disabilities want to work but are afraid they may lose their health insurance and other benefits because of a part-time job. In response, Arizona has created the Disability Benefits 101 on-line tool mentioned in Gov. Markell's blueprint. This tool takes the fear out of employment by helping site visitors understand how work and benefits go together so informed decisions can be made about accepting a job offer.

A new employer engagement collaborative, Untapped Arizona, also was created to support the business community in meeting their workforce needs by connecting employers with qualified job seekers with disabilities. Technical assistance and support to employers pertaining to hiring, legal issues, reasonable accommodations and employee retention are also provided.

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Recommendation No. 3: Prepare youth with disabilities for careers that use their full potential, providing employers with a pipeline of skilled workers.

The good news is that Arizona has started tracking how high school graduates who were enrolled in special education are faring a year after graduation to improve transition programs through the annual Post-School Outcomes Survey.

The bad news, however, is that in 2012, a little more than one in four of these graduates were not employed or were not in any education or training program – revealing that there is still much work to be done in preparing youth with disabilities to succeed in employment.

Recommendation No. 4: Make the best use of limited resources to advance employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

Arizona fails in this area. Since 2008, state funding cuts have constricted the operation of Arizona's vocational programs for people with disabilities. Consequently, Arizona does not receive full federal matching dollars to serve the thousands of individuals with disabilities who are on a wait list and want to work. As a result of insufficient funding, the wait list for those with disabilities not considered significant is closed indefinitely.  

Bolstered by Gov. Markell's blueprint, governors from other states already are making plans to assimilate workers with disabilities into their economic plans.  It is time all Arizonans get a chance to participate in Arizona's economic plan for the betterment of the state.

Gov. Brewer can lead the way in challenging incorrect perceptions that those with significant disabilities who desire to work are unable to work. With the right support and leadership, many with significant disabilities previously considered "unemployable" will be able to work at a competitive wage and Arizona will be on the same competitive level as other states.

Perhaps Gov. Markell stated it best when he said: "There are so many people with disabilities who have the time, talent and desire to make meaningful contributions to interested employers. Advancing employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities is the right thing to do as a society. It's the smart thing for government to do. And it makes business sense."

Morrison Institute for Public Policy is a leader in examining critical Arizona and regional issues, and is a catalyst for public dialogue. An Arizona State University resource, Morrison Institute uses nonpartisan research and communication outreach to help improve the state's quality of life.

McFadden is a policy analyst at the Morrison Institute.

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1 comment on this story

Aug 13, 2013, 3:00 pm
-0 +1

I’m disabled and I find this article very insulting. I don’t receive any charity. I paid income taxes for many years and the rich who pay more taxes, (as they should) used the profits they made off of my labor to do so. I’m only getting back a small percentage of what was stolen from me by the rich. It’s nothing to do with charity.

Also, you have a fundamental misunderstanding of how capitalism works. Any business owner who hires disabled people will risk not being able to profit as much as those who refuse to do so and not be able to be the ones who can expand/set prices and thus be pushed aside. If you try to force business owners to hire disabled people, or if you try to raise the minimum wage, or any other thing that angers them, they’ll simple take “their” money and jobs elsewhere (most likely to other countries).

Also, many disabled people, including myself, are able to do some amount of work during any given day, but bosses don’t deal well with you telling them that “I’ll be in to work when my body allows for it”. In my case (Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome) trying to show up to work after dealing with a dislocated joint or after a night that my arthritis (at 35 I have it in nearly every joint), degenerative disc disease, nerve damage, and/or autonomic dysfunction won’t allow me to get any rest is nothing short of torture. I worked for paychecks for many years, starting at age 12.  As my condition got worse over the years I was only able to manage working in 2-3 week stints before my body would just completely wear down from lack of sleep caused by having to maintain a set schedule and I just physically couldn’t make it to work anymore. No boss will put up with “I’ll be in at half past a dislocation, or EDS:30” they need to fully control you and don’t understand that a disabled person must submit to the will of their disability before submitting to the will of a capitalist.

Instead of trying to find ways to squeeze the blood out of us, why don’t you work on getting all of the able-bodied people jobs and talk to the capitalist class about using some of the profits they milk from us to set up programs that allow us to help one another and to produce goods on our own terms? Of course that’ll never happen while we live under the dictatorship of the capitalist class, but it sure beats this blame the victim/blame the poor tour that you’re on here. The reason why most of us aren’t employed has nothing to do with us, and everything to do with the system/culture we live under. Centuries ago before the rise of capitalism you could find many disabled people working on a farm, making things to help the group, etc.. Now we’re not allowed to do so because of capitalism.

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