Workers with disabilities are posting record-low jobless rates amid a strong economy, but they lag their co-workers without disabilities in both jobs and pay, and many of them live in poverty. Many also struggle to move beyond facility-based employment programs that originally promised to be a bridge to competitive employment, and the ones who did find jobs are largely clustered in low-paid occupations.
On several fronts this fall, ICI’s Community Living and Employment team is creating better opportunities for people with disabilities to use work as a pathway out of poverty and contribute meaningfully in community life.
This month, Governor Tim Walz and Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan announced Kelly Nye-Lengerman’s appointment to the State Rehabilitation Council (SRC), effective December 10. Nye-Lengerman (pictured), director of ICI’s Community Living and Employment programs, will serve as Disability Advocacy Group Representative for a three-year term ending in January 2022.
The SRC guides the state’s Vocational Rehabilitation Services program, which serves people with disabilities statewide as they transition from center-based work programs to paid jobs in the community, a passion that guides much of Nye-Lengerman’s work. ICI staff are actively engaged with state agencies to improve how employment and transition services are delivered.
Among other active employment projects this fall, she and her ICI colleagues are collaborating on a two-year Disability Services Innovation grant from the Minnesota Department of Human Services to support and coach employment providers across Minnesota as they transition to competitive, integrated employment.
“People with disabilities want to use their gifts and talents in ways that provide meaning to their lives and sustainable income,” Nye-Lengerman said. “People with disabilities are an untapped resource for employers that can contribute to business, industry, and the economy. This grant provides a way to invest in building the capacity of disability services providers in our state who want to make competitive employment a reality for people with disabilities.”
Together with the Institute for Community Inclusion at University of Massachusetts-Boston, teams from both institutes are hosting monthly online meetings with groups of service providers to share strategies. They also provide individualized coaching on communicating with potential employers, supporting workers as they train for and seek competitive jobs, and guiding families through the transition. The project is known as the MN Training and Technical Assistance Project (MN-TAP).
Don Lavin, founder of Strengths@Work LLC and a longtime collaborator with ICI, has joined the project as a coach and will work with providers to demonstrate the value people with disabilities offer, particularly in tight labor markets, and their overall impact on the local economy.
Nye-Lengerman’s team also began work October 1 on a three-year grant that will further develop a survey that tracks the daily activities of employment professionals who support job seekers with disabilities. The project, led by the Institute for Community Inclusion at UMass-Boston, is funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research.
Looking forward, Nye-Lengerman, along with ICI colleagues David Johnson and Amy Gunty, will soon release a national report of lessons learned from the Promoting Readiness of Minors in Supplemental Security Income (PROMISE) project. This report will highlight lessons from a randomized control trial of more than 13,000 youth with disabilities, aged 14-16, who receive supplemental security income (SSI). The goal of PROMISE is to reduce long-term reliance on SSI by providing coordinated services that improve education and employment outcomes. Nye-Lengerman and Gunty were members of the national PROMISE technical assistance center.
“Everyone can work with the right supports, and employment can be a mechanism to full inclusion for all people,” she said. “ICI is committed to providing training, technical assistance, and research focused on employment policy and services in Minnesota and beyond.”