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Employment and Wages for Individuals with Developmental Disabilities is a Matter of Choice.

The Coalition of Developmental Disabilities Voices (CDDV) is a grassroots advocacy organization serving individuals with intellectual/developmental disabilities (I/DD) and their families throughout the state of Washington. As we approach the start of the 114th session of Congress and State legislative session, 2015 may be very pivotal for individuals with I/DD and their families. Within the highest levels of federal and state governments discussions are taking place regarding the value of “sheltered employment” versus “community employment” for individuals with I/DD. The questions that need to be clearly answered are:

1. Do sheltered workshops provide a beneficial service/outcome for individuals with significant disabilities and their families?

2. Is working in the community earning minimum wage or higher the only measure that should be used to determine the success of an individual with I/DD?

Using the proverbial onion as an example, there are many layers to these complicated issues, but the heart of the discussion comes down to one fundamental issue: Choice.

The Developmental Disabilities Administration (DDA), and several national and state advocacy organizations, all claim they advocate on behalf of individuals with I/DD and seek input from constituents who will be impacted by changes in service delivery. Yet, in most, if not all cases, the voices of individuals with I/DD and their families are not being heard. For this very reason, the CDDV exists. Washington State’s efforts to eliminate “sheltered workshops” as an option in favor of implementing DDA’s policy of Employment First (community employment only) is a one-sized-fits-all approach to service delivery. It will not work for all individuals whose varying degrees of challenges span low to high acuity levels.

The CDDV and its members agree and support individuals with I/DD obtaining community employment, however, we do not believe community employment should be the only choice for all individuals. Everyone is capable of performing some level of productive work in our communities. However, the unfortunate truth is not everyone that obtains community employment will be successful. This is true for individuals with I/DD and those without disabilities. Yet, for individuals with disabilities, the rate of employment success is significantly lower as evidenced by the most recent BLS report (February 6, 2015) which shows the unemployment rate for individuals with disabilities to be more than double the national average.

Based on the number of individuals with I/DD who are not successful in obtaining and maintaining community employment, does this mean that:

…we should discontinue working to help those who want to pursue community employment?

…we eliminate community-based job-training centers that assist individuals with I/DD in the development of appropriate skill acquisition, behavior management and career exploration opportunities?

…individuals with I/DD who have been waiting for a job, stay at home until a job in the community is found, which may or may not happen?

Absolutely not.

The CDDV believes community-based job-training centers give purpose, foster community integration, and increase the probability for greater employment success. The idea of removing a community resource that instills pride, a sense of purpose, meaning, acceptance, and opportunities for further integration in our community, is one that should not be lost as a part of the service-delivery system. We agree that community employment should be available to everyone, yet elimination of the choice to participate in another service that appropriately meets the needs of the individual, essentially means the person will only be able to participate in the programs that DDA and the Counties impose upon them.

This is where “Employment First” fails the individual and families. For families whose adult son/daughter with I/DD lives in the family home, taking away their choice for options via community-based job-training centers impacts the families opportunity to engage in employment that benefits their household, and also removes the security of knowing their child is in a safe and healthy environment. This is unconscionable. Proponents of Employment First state that all individuals with I/DD should not only work in the community, but should also earn no less than minimum wage.

Many of the proponents of this argument frame this as a civil rights issue, which is clearly not the case. Perhaps this may be illustrated as a case of supply and demand, whereas the need for community-based training centers is high because as data proves community employment for individuals with I/DD is so low. We believe people can choose, if given options, to pursue employment at minimum wage or higher, or participate in training earning sub minimum wage.

Additionally, proponents for Employment First find themselves having to believe working one or two hours a week is the equivalent to being “employed.” The CDDV and its membership do not believe working one to two hours per week is true integrated “employment” – just because an individual with I/DD is earning minimum wage. How is working one or two hours a week earning minimum wage better than receiving paid job-training 20-hours per week in an integrated, supportive, and caring environment where the individual is productive, successful, and a part of their greater community better? From a monetary standpoint, the individual receiving services 20-hours per week earns more when compared to working one to two hours per week in community employment.

The CDDV believes in choice.

To be absolutely clear, the CDDV is not an advocate of keeping individuals with I/DD in sheltered employment. Plain and simple, the CDDV believes in allowing individuals with I/DD and their families to exercise choice in determining the best path for themselves to receive services to maximize their employment success. The CDDV believes the ability to exercise choice is a fundamental civil right of all people especially for those who cannot make an informed decision and need the decision-making support of a parent or legal guardian. We believe a full spectrum of services should be maintained to ensure that each individual receives the most appropriate service that best prepares the individual for greater opportunities for community employment today and in the future.

The State of Washington cannot allow sitting at home, “volunteering,” or participating in community-based “activities” at the exclusion of job-training services. We need to ensure that service providers do not become barriers themselves, based on state mandates for individuals working towards, obtaining, and succeeding in community employment. Annual planning with case managers can address this. We want individuals with I/DD to live a fulfilled life in their community, and to be as successful at community employment as they choose.

The CDDV believes individuals with I/DD and their families need to have meaningful engagement with policy-makers at the federal, state, and county level to ensure that all voices are being heard. The role of government should be to ensure it works with those that have the greatest needs; to help its most vulnerable citizens, and in this case, hear the voices of individuals with I/DD and their families to ensure their needs are appropriately being met to live a meaningful and abundant life.