Waisman Center joins disability partners to support governors’ employment initiative

Dan Bier, Associate Director, UCEDD

Finding workers who improve the bottom line is the goal of any successful business. However, too often workers with disabilities get overlooked. In Wisconsin, the employment rate is 70% for working-age persons without disabilities, while only 37% of people with disabilities are on the job. In other related employment measures for these workers, Wisconsin is in the bottom half of states.

Experts estimate considerable costs to communities caused by the unemployment or “lost output” of Americans with disabilities. Some states have calculated their costs at more than $10 billion.

For these reasons, the Wisconsin disability community welcomes the Better Bottom Line Blueprint for Employing People with Disabilities, to be unveiled by the National Governors Association at its national conference in Milwaukee this week.

The blueprint identifies policies and strategies for state government and business to get workers with disabilities into the competitive labor market, increase profits and reduce overall reliance on public benefits. It gives Wisconsin a good starting point for improving disability employment outcomes.

Wisconsin also has some solid building blocks: The Project SEARCH on-the-job training effort at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin recorded an 83% employment success rate for youths with the most significant disabilities. Walgreen’s Retail Employees with Disabilities Initiative is showcasing how business can improve profits and diversify the workforce by targeting and training workers with disabilities.

Much of the blueprint focuses on preparing youths with disabilities for work, including how states can lead the way with targeted policy changes and by being a model employer. One little-known Wisconsin project — the Let’s Get to Work initiative — provides excellent ideas for next steps. In just one year, the project’s focus on collaboration between state agencies and improved practices tripled the paid employment rates for participating youths. We suggest the findings from this project (which is already becoming a model for the nation) should be scaled up for youths statewide.

While a July 16 Journal Sentinel editorial questions whether a need for more funding is part of the disability employment problem (4,000 people with disabilities are waiting for vocational supports), the blueprint makes it clear it is not just about money. We must break down employer misperceptions about liability concerns, expose the minimal costs of most workplace accommodations and reduce negative assumptions about worker abilities.

We also must market the truth that employers such as Walgreen’s already know: that their employees with disabilities add to the bottom line through increased productivity and reduced staff turnover.

After recent intentional hiring and training of people with disabilities nationally, one Walgreen’s executive said, “We held the belief that people with disabilities, given the right training and support, could work as fast, as accurately and as safely as our current workforce. We have seen this proven to be true in all of our buildings; the higher our expectations, the more our workers with disabilities achieved.”

Tailored Label Products in Menomonee Falls, a manufacturer that has doubled its revenues over the last decade, tells much the same story. Nine-year employee Patrick Young, who has Down syndrome, is among their valued employees.

“My hope is for people with disabilities in Wisconsin to have a job in the community and be involved in the community,” says Patrick, who now can afford to live on his own with limited use of public benefits.

We suggest policy-makers and employers put the blueprint into action now, the Wisconsin way. It is long overdue that we recognize employment of people with disabilities not as a social service, but an economic strategy and see this untapped labor pool as a source of skilled employees who can play a strategic role in meeting workforce needs.

Cindy Bentley is director of People First of Wisconsin. Daniel Bier is associate director of the University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, Waisman Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Joan Karan is acting executive director of Disability Rights Wisconsin. Lisa Pugh is public policy coordinator at Wisconsin Disability Policy Partnership, Disability Rights Wisconsin. Beth Swedeen is executive director of the Wisconsin Board for People with Developmental Disabilities and Let’s Get to Work project.