When Nicole LeBlanc got a job at an ice rink in Vermont, she was surprised by how different the work experience was from her segregated work placements set up by vocational rehabilitation (VR). At the ice rink, she earned about $3 an hour more and worked for the first time alongside peers without disabilities. LeBlanc, who has autism and now does consulting work, advocates for the elimination of systemic barriers to integrated employment for individuals with disabilities. She calls for jobs based upon individuals’ strengths, believing that all people should have the opportunity for careers instead of dead-end jobs. She believes that people with disabilities shouldn’t be limited to jobs in the four Fs: food, filth, flowers, and filing. Setting high expectations for oneself or for a family member with a disability can help individuals attain a fulfilling life with hobbies and community activities as well as a meaningful job.

A smiling woman has her hair in a ponytail. She is wearing a black fleece jacket
Carolyn Coe was a 2019-2020 NH/ME LEND trainee. She lives in Maine.

            LeBlanc’s ice rink job is an example of competitive integrated employment (CIE) for individuals with disabilities, what she calls “real jobs for real pay.” CIE involves working in non-segregated settings where individuals with disabilities receive at least the minimum wage, though not necessarily a living wage. Individuals apply and compete for these jobs with community members without a disability. 

            One step toward promoting competitive integrated employment is implementation of the Home and Community Based Services (HCBS) Final Rule, the deadline for which is March 2023. Currently, it is legal in 46 states and the District of Columbia to pay individuals with disabilities a subminimum wage in sheltered workshops. This means that someone employed in these segregated work environments might earn as low as $3.34/hourAccording to the HCBS Final Rule, even work completed in residential facilities for individuals with disabilities would be fully compensated at the federal minimum wage or higher, and states would need to offer individuals the choice to work in an integrated environment.

            Sometimes states seem to offer competitive integrated employment opportunities but do not, in fact, make the necessary investments to help ensure successful outcomes. In Las Vegas, Nevada, for example, a man who is visually impaired recalls how excited he and his family were when they learned that he would have the opportunity to work in a brick-and-mortar office supply store or in its warehouse after he attended a twelve-week training. During classroom training, he and others learned the workplace lingo and learned how to stack boxes and perform other workplace tasks. With money from VR, his family took him shopping for the steel-toed boots he’d need in the warehouse. “I’m lucky to have a very supportive family,” he says. 

            At the end of the twelve weeks, however, he was disappointed that no job was offered to him. Inadequate investment in developing job partnerships and challenges with the paratransit system are likely factors in the unsuccessful outcome. Prior to the training, the job developers might not have adequately prepared the company to work with people with disabilities. The paratransit system, meanwhile, often made the trainee arrive late to class, and he says he’d show up in tears. 

            The poor quality of paratransit systems is a major barrier to competitive integrated employment in Las Vegas as well as in other communities across the U.S. To be eligible for this transport service in Las Vegas, an individual with a disability must go to a training site, pass an obstacle course, and get a doctor’s permission to ride before the individual finally receives a picture ID card. Once an individual has the card and is able to ride, the problems don’t end. If the paratransit vehicle isn’t where the awaiting rider expects it to be and the rider doesn’t see where the transport vehicle is parked, the driver might drive off, leaving the individual behind and causing family members to worry. The rider, meanwhile, gets a demerit for not meeting the scheduled vehicle and risks losing the right to use the transport at all. On top of this, in Las Vegas, the city is actually shrinking its paratransit service area even as the city expands in size.

            Not every effort toward equitable work opportunities fails, however. Project SEARCH is an example of what a school-to-work program for transition-age students can be. This one-year program, based in Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, has strong business partnerships, helps individuals acquire competitive workplace skills, and has successful employment outcomes. Project SEARCH places individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities in non-seasonal jobs involving at least 16 work hours a week for the minimum wage or higher. Instead of pigeonholing workers, the employment partners represent a cross-section of employment fields in integrated work environments. The workers’ pay in 2018-19 averaged at $10.85 an hour for an average of 24.7 hours per week. According to University of Cincinnati research fellowAmanda Buncher, the employment partners have also benefitted from the creation of more inclusive workplaces.

            Advocates for competitive integrated employment can act now, asking their state leadership if it has a transition plan to meet the employment opportunity requirements, aligned with other state and federal initiatives and requirements, for the HCBS Final Rule. Jamie-Ray Leonetti and Julia Barol, both from the Institute on Disabilities at Temple University, recommend the advocacy site www.hcbsadvocacy.org for more information. Advocates can also ask their Congressional leaders to join Senator Bob Casey, Representative Cathy McMorris-Rodgers, and other cosponsors of S 260 and HR 873. Telling stories about successful placement and work done by individuals with disabilities in competitive integrated work environments is an important tool for educating our legislators about the desire of individuals not only to have meaningful work but also to be valued contributors to society.