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Press Release: As National Disability Employment Awareness Month Opens, Leaders Say Mass. Residents with Disabilities Can Turn the Tide of Labor Force Loss

State agency chiefs present disability/employment agenda at conference

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Originally published: 10/2005

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact: Danielle Dreilinger, Institute for Community Inclusion/UMass Boston

Boston, MA (Oct. 6, 2005) Despite the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act 15 years ago, high unemployment for people with disabilities persists. According to the National Organization on Disability, 65% of Americans with disabilities are unemployed, even though two-thirds of them are eager to work. Many who do work have low-paying jobs with few benefits or opportunities for career advancement, or separate, "sheltered" jobs in a disability-only, piece-rate environment. A new study from Cornell University indicates that disability employment rates in fact fell nationally from 2003 to 2004.

This is a problem for people with disabilities, and it's a problem for the Commonwealth as a whole. According to economist Bob Vinson, the Massachusetts labor force has shrunk by 26,400 since August 2004. Although this sounds like a boon for the unemployed job seeker, labor force loss will ultimately curtail job growth since businesses will be reluctant to create jobs that may not be filled.

But this loss can be countered by taking advantage of the undertapped workforce of people with disabilities. "Increased disability employment rates benefit job seekers, business, and the community as a whole through an increased tax base," says William Kiernan, director of the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

On Sept. 27, 530 people with disabilities and workforce professionals gathered to address this situation at the Mission: Employment 2 conference in Marlborough, MA, sponsored by the Institute for Community Inclusion. Stated Kiernan, "This conference addressed a national need while highlighting some of the Commonwealth's successes in promoting employment options for people with disabilities."

"Our mission, if we choose to accept it, is to get people more jobs," said Gerry Morrissey, Assistant Secretary of the state Office for Disabilities and Community Services. Overcoming stereotypes plays a major role in this effort. "The number-one reason that people with disabilities aren't working," Morrissey continued, "is that we as a public have values that underestimate their assets."

Assistant Secretary John Wagner of the Office of Children, Youth, and Families added the welfare perspective. Legislation currently in play to amend state welfare/disability policies needs to ensure that welfare recipients with disabilities have access to employment supports, he said, speaking of the need to "restructure the welfare program to serve those folks." Wagner continued, "This is not about sanctions. This is not about being punitive. What it is about is giving people opportunity."

Several speakers made the business case for employing people with disabilities. Jane Edmonds, Director of the Department of Workforce Development, said that smart employers "utilize the skills we bring to the workplace regardless of the diversity we represent." Keynote speaker Peter Meade of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts said that his company purposely aims to hire employees who reflect the state's diversity: "We want to serve and employ everybody."

On a broader level, he said, reflecting on the experiences of a childhood friend with Down syndrome, work means more than just a paycheck. "It is very important for us as a country… to live up to our obligation to treat everyone with dignity," he stated. "Excluding makes us a weaker society."

"We are fully committed," said UMass Boston Chancellor Michael F. Collins, M.D., adding, "UMass Boston has the highest percentage of students with disabilities enrolled in any college or university in New England."

Employing people with disabilities makes both business and societal sense. Potential workers with disabilities have assets the Commonwealth can't afford to overlook.

Mission: Employment 2 was presented by the Institute for Community Inclusion at UMass Boston with funding from the U.S. Department of Labor and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The Institute for Community Inclusion (ICI) promotes the inclusion of people with disabilities in their communities through training, consultation, clinical and employment services, and research. ICI is based at the University of Massachusetts Boston and Children's Hospital Boston. www.communityinclusion.org

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ICI: promoting inclusion for people with disabilities