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Arc Community Advocates' Ellen Stone On Why We Need to Hire Those with Disabilities

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According to a recent state survey, only eighteen percent of those with developmental disabilities in Michigan are employed. Others tend to end up with piecemeal jobs that pay below the minimum wage. The Arc Community Advocates group is hosting an Inclusion Conference on Monday, April 20th at Western Michigan University to spotlight the issue. The conference will specifically focus on the transition from school to work for those with disabilities. WMUK’s Robbie Feinberg spoke with Arc Executive Director Ellen Stone to learn more. 

ROBBIE FEINBERG: So why are the numbers so high?

ELLEN STONE, ARC COMMUNITY ADVOCATES: I think there are several barriers to employment for folks with disabilities. Partially, some people with disabilities don’t understand how they can work and still receive the benefits that they need. People with disabilities rely on Medicaid to get the supports that they need in order to live independently, and a lot of them are fearful that if they work, they may earn too much money and lose that benefit. And there are a lot of programs in place to keep that from happening. But you have to understand it. And that can be hard for some folks.

On the other side of the coin, for employers, a lot of times there’s a lot of stigma or concern around how do you employ people with disabilities? Is it a charity if you hire somebody with a disability? Are they actually going to add to your bottom line? And employers are starting to come around to that. A lot of employers have found that working with people with disabilities actually is beneficial to their company. Fifth Third Bank has been working with individuals with disabilities through Project Search for a number of years now.

And they’ve found that they’ve been able to save huge amount of money, and it’s actually been very beneficial for their organization because some of the folks with disabilities that they work with are very detail-oriented and they catch mistakes, like duplication of accounts if they did a data transfer. But it’s just getting that word out there and helping them to really look at this population and consider them when they are hiring.

FEINBERG: How much of a role can the government play in that? Is it just advocacy efforts? Or is there actual legislation efforts that need to be passed?

STONE: There are policy opportunities. The state of Washington has had an “Employment First” policy for more than ten years. And in Washington, rather than people with disabilities having to prove that they are able to work in order to access supported employment services, there’s a presumption that everybody can work. So, rather than proving you can work, in Washington you have to prove that you can’t.

So people with disabilities have to try to work in three different settings before they can be placed in a day program or workshop setting. So they have to try working in a community-based setting and have it shown that that really is not going to be a functional option for them before they can go to an alternative setting.

And that’s certainly something that we’d like to see in Michigan, is just that transition from doing assessment to see if people are eligible for work programs, to presuming that everyone can work. And then if it’s found that somebody can’t, coming up with other options for those folks.

WMUK full interview with Ellen Stone

FEINBERG: So where does Michigan lie right now compared to other states when it comes to having those opportunities for those with developmental disabilities?

STONE: Michigan, right now, I would say, is in a phase of transition. There has been a policy through the Department of Community Health and through our community mental health system, it’s called the Employment Works policy. Which states that community-based employment is the first choice that should be considered for people receiving community mental health services.

Unfortunately, that has not been very productive, and we have not seen a very large shift in the numbers, so we need to put in more effort and continue this transition. And it’s a combination. There are some things that can be done from a policy perspective.

There’s also a lot that just needs to be done from a community awareness perspective and really working with employers to reach out to them. If employers are willing to hire folks with disabilities and really consider this group of people when they’re making their hiring decisions, then we don’t necessarily need legislative action.

FEINBERG: What do you tell an employer when you’re trying to get past that stigma and saying these workers can do a good job for them?

STONE: Usually what I do is I actually have other businesses tell them. Because business leaders listen to business leaders. And so we will have sessions at the Inclusion Conference that are employers who have hired folks with disabilities or have changed their policies. Employers who have said, “You know, a high school diploma or a GED, there’s not really a reason to have that standard.”

A lot of individuals with disabilities don’t graduate high school with a diploma. They have a certificate of completion. And that rules them out for a bunch of jobs that they would be perfectly capable of doing. So we share a lot of stories of successful employees and employer relationship and we will have Fifth Third Bank and Celebration Cinema and other employers who have successfully employed individuals with disabilities sharing their experiences at the Inclusion Conference.

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