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Challenges government employees with disabilities face in the pandemic

It’s difficult to sum up the challenges that people with disabilities face when looking for employment.

They are many, and they are complex.

The solution is equally intricate — unfortunately, it requires much more than a simple change of attitude, although that’s a good place for organizations to start. Changing policy frameworks, building support networks, and increased awareness are all needed to tackle the raft of challenges disabled people face in finding (and keeping) employment.

Especially today, when the impact of COVID-19 has left disabled workers at an even greater disadvantage than before.

The reality for disabled workers in America (and across much of the Western world)

Employees with disabilities are less likely to be employed than non-disabled people — and that’s true across all age groups and industry sectors, including government and federal organizations. Even after adjusting for the number of disabled people claiming social security, SSEI, disability income and accounting for all other variables, the difference is stark.

Within those who are employed, the vast majority are working for less than the legal minimum wage and are therefore less likely to be able to sustain themselves on what they earn alone. This results in them relying on financial aid from their family and the state.

True, there is additional funding and a range of resources available to employers who hire people with disabilities. But, as we’ll go on to explain in this thought-piece, these initiatives are less than perfect in practice.

Segregation is also an issue, with the majority of disabled employees working alone or in small groups alongside other disabled people. The uptake of employment schemes is dominated by low-paying and lower-skilled sectors like hospitality.

What does this mean for a disabled worker’s livelihood?

For one, people with disabilities are far less able to gain the independence that is synonymous with employment for most non-disabled people.

This can cause a significant impact on a disabled person’s mental health. Feeling like you have to rely on state support — even though you are doing everything you can to become independent — can be incredibly demoralizing. It is also harmful to their physical health, with many not being able to sustain a healthy lifestyle while working.

Lack of integration also causes negative effects. It subtly supports the stigma associated with “being disabled” and denies disabled employees the opportunity to socialize beyond the sphere they’ve been provided. It also denies non-disabled employees the chance to interact with and learn more about their disabled colleagues — something that’s crucial for meaningful, long-term inclusivity in the workplace.

But it’s not all bad news.

On one hand, awareness of disabilities has increased, and attitudes towards people with disabilities have shifted significantly over the past 15-20 years. In many organizations — government teams included — disabled people are now seen as more equal, possessing equivalent potential.

Yet there’s still more work to be done.

People with disabilities do not want to be segregated or ‘othered’. They want the same opportunities that non-disabled people have, which means fairer access to employment, a sustainable living wage, and to be able to participate fully in both society and the workplace.

Introducing Competitive Integrated Employment (CIE)

As the name might suggest, integrated employment promotes the integration of disabled employees into the core workforce.
As an initiative, Competitive Integrated Employment (CIE) has been rolled out in various states across the U.S. It’s also something EconSys helps organizations get right.

The ethos and initiatives of Competitive Integrated Employment

Since the signing of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act in 2014, American businesses are under new pressure to remove barriers to employment — making opportunities more equal.

In the lead up to this new law, Employment First had been making strides, fighting to make employment in the general workforce the first (and preferred) option for people with disabilities. This involved securing public funding for employment schemes, empowering disabled workers to gain meaningful and sustainable employment.

It went a long way towards solving some of the challenges that people with disabilities faced (particularly around securing a living wage) but it was not a fix-all solution. The range of publicly funded employment opportunities for disabled people was still very limited and segregation between disabled and non-disabled people persisted.

Enter: Competitive Integrated Employment.

CIE seeks to build on the success of Employment First by promoting recognition of the skills that disabled employees have to offer — creating opportunities for them to work alongside non-disabled people. This allows disabled people to be more competitive in the jobs market and encourages integration with the general workforce.

Under the banner of CIE, three initiatives were born to direct focus, funding, and resources to where they would have the greatest positive impact for people with disabilities.

  1. Visionary Opportunities to Increase Competitive Employment (VOICE) – VOICE provides policy consulting, technical support, peer mentoring, subject matter expertise and a host of other resources to support states in creating better employment opportunities for people with disabilities.
  2. The Veterans Return to Integrated Competitive Employment (RICE) – Many of our veterans return with significant disabilities resulting from their time in service. These disabilities range from physical — such as missing limbs and visual impairments — to mental disabilities, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The Veterans Return to Integrated Competitive Employment (RICE) focuses on finding employment opportunities for our veterans as they transition back to civilian life.
  3. National Expansion of Employment Opportunities Network (NEON) – NEON works with National Provider Organizations (NPOs) to increase the number of CIE opportunities for people with severe disabilities and mental health disabilities who have previously faced significant barriers to employment.

The progress so far

By early 2020, CIE and its initiatives were having real impact — creating a more competitive employment landscape for disabled people from a huge range of backgrounds and across a much broader spectrum of industries.

As recently as February, the Department of Labor selected 12 states (plus the District of Columbia) to participate in the VOICE initiative.

But, shortly afterwards, the COVID-19 pandemic began to tighten its grip on the country. And — almost overnight — the nature of the challenge changed dramatically.

COVID-19: creating new challenges for CIE and disabled workers in America

The effects of the pandemic have been disastrous and far-reaching for everyone, with many people facing employment uncertainty, declining physical and mental health, and extremely limited access to normal services and amenities.
People with disabilities have been one of the hardest hit demographics.

The scale of the change they were forced to adapt to, and the reduction in support that resulted, created a new and unique set of challenges — to the point that the response required was almost as significant as it was before Employment First launched in 2012.

Day-to-day life is now markedly more difficult for people with disabilities

People with disabilities are in the highest risk category for COVID-19 infection. They make up a large proportion of the “elderly and chronically ill” group, who — across the world — have been encouraged to remove themselves from society, or risk their lives.

But the mere presence of coronavirus has thrown up countless other challenges to disabled people. For example, wearing a face mask has become the norm for many. And while face covering may help slow infection rates, they also make life incredibly difficult for someone who is visually impaired; relying on lip-reading to communicate.

Lockdown, social distancing, and other necessary measures have caused massive disruption to normal routines — something that people with disabilities will find incredibly hard to adapt to. The predictability of routine is something disabled people rely on to help manage their day to day lives, more so than non-disabled people do.

Many mental health disabilities, such as autism, cause an overwhelmingly negative response to changes like this.

Compounding this problem, much of the information provided by state governments and health organizations is disseminated via the internet, apps and smartphones — technology that disabled people can find it difficult to use. In some cases, this vulnerable group is experiencing a lack of information, and the information they are getting is taking longer to reach them. This creates even more anxiety from an increasing sense of uncertainty about the situation.

Being confined to their homes, disabled people must rely on the support of their family instead of trained professionals. Families are rarely fully equipped to provide this support, and the strain that this can put on home life can be severe. Straining support networks like this puts disabled people at great risk. It is not the family’s fault they are in this position — the support they need simply is not there.

Employment now less of a possibility for disabled workers

During the pandemic, employment support has been scaled back or removed completely. Funding has all but dried up and employers are being forced to let disabled workers go due to the lack of financial aid.

State spending is being directed away from employment initiatives to try and keep other areas of the economy afloat. States and businesses are faced with an impossible decision, and people with disabilities are faced with a no-win situation.

Businesses are closing, and the hospitality industry (which had one of the biggest uptakes of Employment First) has been hit the hardest. As such, people with disabilities are experiencing unemployment at a higher rate than non-disabled people. This is true for disabled employees across other sectors too, including within state and federal government.

For people with disabilities, their lack of familiarity with technology (which has become a staple of business communication since the pandemic) coupled with the lack of employer incentives could make it much harder for them to find any employment, let alone

Competitive Integrated Employment, for the foreseeable future.

Unless, that is, this unprecedented challenge is met with an equally unprecedented response.

Improving employment outcomes for employees with disabilities during the pandemic — what do government teams need to know?

In the face of the pandemic, reduced funding for states, and reduced support for people with disabilities, EconSys continues to support states in doing everything they can to provide positive employment outcomes for disabled people.

Don’t let disabled workers go forgotten

Previously, job coaches and job developers worked in the community — building relationships with employers face-to-face. Now, that work is proactively being done via channels like video conferencing.

Cold-calling and developing new relationships over the phone is difficult, but support staff are becoming increasingly successful as they adjust to this new way of working. EconSys is at the heart of this, providing training, technical support, and subject matter experts to ensure that state and federal agencies transition to new technologies and working practices as smoothly as possible.
Part of this involves building on an already significant digital audience by running monthly webinars and sharing useful information via email. We are reaching out to people wherever they are with everything we can to help them continue to support disabled people and create competitive integrated employment opportunities for them.

Adapt recruitment processes to continue CIE efforts

Video resumes — where employers can experience, face-to-face, a candidate’s capabilities — have proved a highly valuable tool. After all, if we aren’t careful, then disabled workers may slip through the cracks as the country, and economy, recovers.
Government organizations have the unique responsibility of representing their citizen community. To allow an entire demographic of people to be pushed aside would be — quite literally — criminal.

Of course, there will be some confusion and back and forth as businesses re-emerge from lockdown. But with the right tools and techniques, there’s no reason for employees with disabilities to miss out on fair recruitment opportunities.

With every challenge, we learn more about how to protect the employment rights of disabled people and create increasingly more effective ways to improve employment outcomes for them.

We do not yet know how different the post-COVID world will look, but EconSys’s determination and work ethic in promoting fairer access to employment remains.

If your government agency needs more information, resources or advice about employment processes post-pandemic, then we can help. It’s our job to help you get the most from your state and federal teams — no matter the internal or external challenges. Get in touch to find out more about VOICE, RICE, NEON, and other ways EconSys is supporting capacity building and state policy alignment, today and into the future.

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