The Bipartisan Disability Caucus recently hosted a briefing on the importance of employment for individuals with disabilities with colleagues from the Association of University Centers on Disabilities (AUCD) and the Department of Labor.
The panelists highlighted Employment First initiatives around the country that are successfully transitioning individuals with disabilities into competitive integrated employment. Employment First is a nationwide initiative that creates a framework that is centered on the principle that all citizens, including individuals with autism, are capable of full participation in integrated employment and community life.
Under Employment First, public policies and practices must ensure employment of citizens with disabilities within the general workforce is the first priority for publicly funded services and service delivery. This means employment will initially be considered the primary goal for individuals receiving adult services.
Autism Speaks is working with governors to expand Employment First policies that focus on the needs of transition-age youth and adults with autism. State leadership can steer state agencies to coordinate efforts on targeting services to transition-age youth that will prepare them for the workforce after graduation. Services can include work-based learning, career exploration, job coaching and career and technical education. States have successfully tailored support services so that all individuals – including those with significant needs – can achieve successful employment outcomes. Autism Speaks is working to ensure that employment policies fully support everyone with autism no matter what level of support they require.
“The unique strengths and abilities of each individual – including those with significant needs - should be maximized and supported so that they can reach their fullest potential, ” said Angela Lello, senior director for public policy at Autism Speaks. “Publicly funded adult services, like employment support, should be delivered on a highly individualized basis.”
According to a 2015 report, upon graduation half of youth on the autism spectrum were disconnected from work, meaning they never had a job or continued school. Furthermore, the employment rates of adults with autism are far lower than young adults with other types of disabilities- only 58 percent of young adults with autism worked after high school.
32 states have adopted formal Employment First policies in response to the low labor force participation rate of individuals with disabilities. In many states, less than 10 percent of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities are working along non-disabled peers for competitive wages, otherwise known as integrated employment services.
Some states with Employment First policies have made promising improvements. For example, Employment First policies in Washington state have resulted in 89 percent of individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities being served in integrated employment, as compared to a national average of 20 percent. In Tennessee, the statewide Employment First taskforce is working with Vocational Rehabilitation services to roll out pre-employment services to transition-age youth with disabilities starting at age 14.
With approximately 50,000 people with autism entering adulthood each year in the United States, it is critical they have access to pre-employment or transition programs starting at age 14, career and technical education (CTE), vocational rehabilitation, adult employment services and opportunities for work within the community. Individuals with autism deserve equal opportunity to contribute as productive workers in the labor market, pay taxes, and live independently. With the proper employment services that are highly individualized and based on strengths and interests, individuals with autism can reach their full potential.