Community Employment Evolution

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month and it is a wonderful time to talk about hiring someone with a disability! As I close out a 30-year career in this field, the majority of that in the community employment realm, there are many things that have evolved over the years. When starting out in this field as a job developer in Marion County in 1992, approaching an employer about hiring someone with a disability was not always easy. Many did not know what to expect as this was a fairly new concept. At times, an employer might say that they had no interest, they might say that they had tried it before and it did not work, or they might say the job was too involved for someone with a disability. Thirty years later, there are so many more opportunities for someone with a disability to have a job and be a contributing member of their community. Now many employers either have someone with a disability working for them or have had someone in the past, and most have seen someone working in the Lima/ Allen County area at their favorite restaurant or grocery store.

As I reflect back, what are some of changes and differences, and how has hiring someone with a disability evolved to become so beneficial for many employers? Thirty years ago, only those considered the “higher functioning” individuals had a community job. You might not realize some even had a disability! The majority of individuals went to the sheltered workshops because it was “safe” and they would have somewhere to go during the day. Many parents also wanted that safety net and were afraid their loved one would be made fun of in a community job, taken advantage of or that they might fail. Many individuals also did not want to leave their friends and peers who were in that sheltered setting. Many of the jobs in the early years of community employment revolved around the Four F’s: food, filth, flowers and factory (such as light assembly or putting stickers on items) and many times were not given a shot at trying anything more advanced. If someone was in a wheelchair or hearing impaired, that made it even more difficult. Sometimes we could not even get the individual into the building for an interview if it was not accessible. When the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law in 1990, this started to open the door for more opportunities and reasonable accommodations. Job applications used to ask if someone had a mental or physical disability and at times an application might be pushed to the side without an interview, even though they could meet the minimum qualifications of the job.

Fast forward to 2022. When I moved and began at the Allen County Board of DD in 1997 as Employment Services Manager, there were approximately 40 people with community jobs. As of October 2022, I am proud to say that 150 people served by the Board are working competitively in the community! That is an amazing increase in 25 years. What are some of the things that have contributed to this significant increase? Expectations started to shift in 2012, when Governor Kasich officially launched Ohio’s Employment First Initiative and community employment became the preferred outcome for people with developmental disabilities and that supports would be available to help them succeed. This expectation also shifted to students with developmental disabilities transitioning from school. Transition planning started happening much earlier and career options that might fit their skills, interests and abilities started being explored. There was a focus on community employment and not the sheltered environment, much of which could be explored/funded through the partnership with Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities starting at age fourteen. More adults with disabilities have started seeing their friends obtain and maintain a job, so others have wanted to try this too. There are many people working now, that I never would have imagined twenty years ago leaving the sheltered workshop or even wanting to try a job.

There are many cool statistics that the Board can share on employment through the years. Here is one of those fun facts: The Board actually has four people over the age of seventy working in the Lima/Allen County area because they want to work. All four are very proud of their jobs and most did not get their first job until their later years. The pandemic has also brought to light the untapped resource we have of people that are willing and able to work. Employers have been more willing to get to know the person and talk about their “abilities” versus their “disabilities” and see what piece/parts of a job they might be able to do. Employers have been willing to cut a 40 hour a week job down into two positions, which in the past was always hard to negotiate. Wages for those individuals are also at an all-time high. Video resumes are used at times now when someone is looking for a job, where an employer can get a quick view of what the person is capable of versus seeing it on paper. This is such a creative way to show an individual’s strengths.

As we close out October and I close out my time with the Board, if you are an employer and have an interest in talking about hiring someone with a disability, please call the Board of DD. You will find these individuals to be some of the most dedicated and dependable that you will ever hire and many times there is a boost of morale among your current employees. Having a job gives individuals with a disability a sense of belonging, self-sufficiency, independence and confidence. The facts boast about people with disabilities having great attendance, longevity in their jobs and wanting to do excellent in the job they hold. Hiring people with disabilities builds an inclusive community and adds diversity to the workforce. For more information after my retirement, please contact Tammy Smith, Employment Coordinator at 419-221-1385 ext. 2869. This is the next chapter in Employment Services at the Board of DD and it is a very exciting time!

By: Melodie Conley, Employment Services and Advocacy Manager