By David Michael Mank, Ph.D.**

There are two wrong ways to view the capabilities of people with significant disabilities. The first way is to meet someone, and automatically focus on their disability and assume that competitive integrated employment (CIE) is not possible. When, in fact, this individual has capabilities to work successfully. The second way is to meet an individual with a significant disability, see their potential and seek to discover that person’s interests, history and capabilities but, over time, fail to successfully support them in finding and sustaining employment. I first heard of this sentiment many years ago in the writings of Don Baer from the University of Kansas (a pioneer in discovering how to connect with people with significant disabilities through identifying their potential and preferred modes of communication and teaching). Don’s points were clear, concise and to the point: If we are going to be wrong about the ability and potential of a person, we must always be wrong in the second way. As a young man in graduate school at the University of Oregon many years ago, I was taught that any failure to learn by a person with a disability is my failure as a teacher and not the person’s failure. And, in the words of the customized employment guru Marc Gold, it is our responsibility to “Try Another Way”.

Now, in 2021, the debate continues among the broader community not only about the capabilities of individuals with disabilities, but about how and where people should spend their time. There continue to be ongoing presumptions underlying these arguments that are based on low expectations of people with significant disabilities about their competencies and potential to make significant contributions to their communities. This paternalistic attitude continues to be toxic in terms of how we approach public policies that directly impact the options individuals with significant disabilities have in terms of where they live, if they are allowed to work (and where), and what they can do during the day. 

This debate is never clearer than in a conversation about the employability of individuals with significant disabilities in the generic workforce.  Many self-advocates and other advocacy organizations assert competitive integrated employment first for all adults with significant disabilities, and the end of sheltered workshops and sub-minimum wages for all. Many proponents of maintaining sheltered workshops and the payment of sub-minimum wages argue that without these mechanisms, people with significant disabilities would not have any opportunities to work or contribute. Passions run high across these divergent perspectives.

Too often, in my view, this is argued as an “either, or” question. My question is this: what do we need to do to make the use of sub-minimum wages and sheltered workshops unnecessary? I have tried to make the point, to the disappointment of some, that eliminating such policy without any additional work around systems-change is but a Pyrrhic Victory, taking too great of a toll that negates the achievement. Instead, we must offer something better, one person at a time. Simply eliminating sheltered work or sub-minimum wages today and doing nothing else to promote the employment of people with significant disabilities does not provide a better tomorrow. We need a well- designed phase out of sub-minimum wages and we must engage in the important work of seeking to discover each person’s interests and capabilities in a thorough and authentic process. We must learn the methods (now well-developed) of customized employment strategies, systematic instruction, and positive behavior supports. We must have a direct support workforce that is well-trained, well-supported and well-paid.

Will we always succeed? Probably not. Will we succeed more often than not? Yes. Studies show that two-thirds of people in sheltered workshop settings have an interest in competitive integrated employment. Even given this clear interest, few are given the opportunity to leave sheltered settings for competitive integrated employment. Addressing this need alone is many years of work.

We also know that working at full productivity is less about the person and the disability than it is about the intersection of a person and what they are being asked to do. Any one of us can, in 60 seconds, list at least 5 jobs where our performance would be very poor. Many of us spend years finding the kind of work that suits us. Too often in sheltered work, people are offered work available rather that offered work that suits the person based on their interests, skills and experiences.

In this new Administration, we have the opportunity to move forward with decreasing the reliance of states and the disability community on sheltered work by implementing real systems change that leads to increased competitive integrated employment options for individuals with significant disabilities. The Transformation to Competitive Employment Act, to be re-introduced this Congress, is one important opportunity. It builds on the work of many researchers, practitioners, self-advocates, employers and families over several decades. I have written about this opportunity in the past [read HERE], and stand by my belief that passing legislation such as the Transformation to Competitive Employment Act is the most effective and comprehensive way to empower those with disabilities while still maintaining federal safety nets that protect both the people gaining their economic independence, as well as the businesses that used to employ them. It is long past time that people with disabilities be given opportunities on par with everyone else – to obtain real jobs for real wages and make real contributions to society.

Image description: Photo of Professor David Mank, Caucasian man with gray hair, tie and glasses sitting in front of a white board with water bottle.

** About the Author: David Mank, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He chaired the Advisory Committee for Increasing Competitive Integrated Employment for Individuals with Disabilities established by Congress in the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014.  He is an Advisory  Council Member of the Collaboration to Promote Self Determination.

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