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Impact Feature Issue on Supporting New Career Paths for People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

Putting Employment First

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Kathleen Martinez is Assistant Secretary of the Office of Disability Employment Policy, U.S. Department of Labor

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I was born blind and grew up in a large family. My sister Peggy, who was also born blind, and I were the middle of six children. And from day one, our parents instilled in us a love of learning and an expectation of work. They fought for us to attend our local public school instead of a special one for the blind so that we could be a part of, rather than separate from, our community.

My parents didn’t know it then, but they were subscribers to Employment First. The “first” in Employment First refers to the idea that community-based, integrated employment should be the primary expected outcome for youth and adults with significant disabilities. For Peggy and I, going to school in a community-based, integrated environment provided us with the foundation we would need to become contributing members of the workforce.

To promote Employment First, the Office of Disability Employment Policy recently launched the Employment First State Leadership Mentor Program to help states align their policies and priorities to advance community-based, integrated employment. And by that, we mean jobs in typical settings where most people do not have disabilities, and where people with disabilities earn at least minimum wage and are paid directly by the employer.

Four states – three protégé states and one mentor state – were selected to participate in this important program. Iowa, Oregon and Tennessee are the protégés and Washington State, a trailblazer in the Employment First arena, will serve as their mentor. To assist them in developing their Employment First transition plans, the protégé states will also receive technical assistance from subject matter experts.

I am living proof of what can happen when there are high expectations, and I know there are many others out there like me who could benefit from an Employment First philosophy. In fact, last November, I had the pleasure of speaking at a briefing on Integrated Employment on Capitol Hill, where the centerpiece of the briefing was a panel that featured Brendan O’Neill, a person with a disability who has been successfully employed at Washington State’s Valley Medical Center for nearly 18 years. In many less progressive places, he would have limited, if any, opportunities for employment. Instead, Brendan has been contributing to Valley Medical and enjoying the satisfaction that comes from a good day’s work, and our economy has benefitted from him making money and paying taxes.

Going forward, we want more people to think – like Brendan’s service provider and employer did when he was transitioning out of school – about jobs in the community. We want them to think about jobs in integrated workplaces. We want them to think about jobs that pay at least minimum wage. We want integrated and competitive community-based employment to be the norm, rather than the exception for people with significant disabilities, and Employment First as the default employment service delivery strategy.

Reprinted with permission from “Work in Progress – The Official Blog of the U.S. Department of Labor” (April 18, 2012).