New report: NC is not doing right by working people with disabilities

New report: NC is not doing right by working people with disabilities

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[Editor’s note: A new report from the advocacy group Disability Rights North Carolina (“Moving into the Economic Mainstream: An Overview of Employment Services for People with Disabilities in North Carolina”) paints a damning picture of the way working people with disabilities are treated in the Tar Heel State. The following is from a release that accompanied the report and the report executive summary.]

People with disabilities need full and inclusive access to meaningful employment opportunities.

Many North Carolinians with disabilities are being left out of the economic mainstream. State policies continue to subject many people with disabilities to unfair wages, isolation, and limited work expectations and options. Employment services also continue to fail people with disabilities who aspire to obtain meaningful employment.

A new report released this week by Disability Rights North Carolina highlights these inequities. The report was prepared following a two-year investigation into employment services in the state, including interviews with hundreds of workers with disabilities who are paid less than the federal and state minimum wage. This is from the executive summary:

The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) promised a new era of equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for people with disabilities. North Carolina is struggling to achieve the goals set in 1990. Only one-third of working-age North Carolinians with disabilities are employed, whereas well over two-thirds of their non-disabled peers are employed. Additionally, over 5,000 of the State’s residents with disabilities continue to be paid less than the minimum wage. It is well past time to move the majority of North Carolinians with disabilities into the economic mainstream.

On paper, North Carolina appears to offer a robust system of employment services. In reality, parents, advocates, and people with disabilities struggle to make informed choices because they are either not aware of the full array of services available to them or are misinformed about the services. As a result, individuals with disabilities frequently end up without services or with services that do not effectively assist them in reaching their employment goals. This report attempts to help close the information gap by providing an overview of the employment services available in North Carolina and offer suggestions on how to improve existing employment services by proposing how they should evolve.

Low employment rates amongst people with disabilities is an inherited problem and one which will not abate until steps are taken to address the problem. In most respects, it does not require spending more taxpayer dollars. It is a matter of shifting our funding and priorities to support employment services that emphasize community-based, competitive wage employment, and respects the importance of informed choice. Implementing these changes will achieve better employment services, leading to better job matches, less reliance on government benefits, and move greater numbers of people with disabilities into the economic mainstream.”

As Disability Rights attorney Christopher Hodgson observed:

The majority of workers with disabilities who earn subminimum wages are not aware of other work and training opportunities and are often dissuaded from trying to obtain better employment. In general, the employment-service system that is supposed to help prepare people with disabilities for community employment is too complex and not explained well-enough for them to effectively use.”

Recommendations in the report include:

  • Phase out segregated employment services
  • Eliminate the subminimum wage in North Carolina
  • “No wrong door” for employment services
  • Develop a stronger culture of informed choice

If implemented, these steps will better ensure full access and inclusion in the workforce for people with disabilities across North Carolina.

The report comes on the heels of important developments in this area. Disability Rights North Carolina and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services signed a memorandum of understanding to improve the delivery of employment services for North Carolinians with disabilities in February 2019. As part of this agreement, the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services will reform its policies, procedures, and practices to phase out segregated work training and support only fully-competitive and integrated settings by October 1, 2021.

These changes will advance the work potential and earnings of workers with disabilities by better preparing them for competitive jobs. The agreement is consistent with Governor Roy Cooper’s recently signed Executive Order 92, which states: “North Carolinians with disabilities should be able to secure employment in integrated community settings that provide competitive wages and benefits, enable them to reach their full potential, increase their economic self-sufficiency, and grant them dignity as members of the workforce.”

As Disability Rights North Carolina CEO Virginia Knowlton Marcus observed:

The days of placing people with disabilities in segregated workshops and preparing them only for a lifetime of low wages must end. North Carolinians with disabilities deserve training in integrated job settings that prepare them for economic stability. With this agreement to phase out segregated employment training in the Vocational Rehabilitation agency, the Department has signified its commitment to improving employment opportunities and outcomes for people with disabilities in North Carolina.”

The recommendations must be addressed to meet the employment needs of people with disabilities. DRNC is committed to serve in its role as the protection and advocacy agency of North Carolina. The agency will continue to work to ensure that the voices and input of people with disabilities are illuminated as the state moves towards full inclusion and equity in the workplace.

Read the full report here.