Working Toward Change: Employment for All

by Lauren Coyle
EP!C

While there is much work left to be done, a number of initiatives are expanding the possibilities for people with disabilities.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 17.9 percent of people with disabilities were employed in 2016, compared to 65.3 percent of people without a disability. As these statistics represent all types of employment, the number of individuals with jobs in the community is even smaller. A variety of factors contribute to the numbers, including the unwillingness of some businesses to hire workers who stand out from the typical workforce and the lack of needed supports for job seekers.

A related issue is the absence of variety in employment for individuals with disabilities; most often, they are seen in the traditional settings of grocery stores and fast food restaurants. Although society has come a long way in services and opportunities for people with disabilities (In 1964, they were even excluded from the Civil Rights Act and denied any access to employment), there is much work left to be done in altering perceptions. There are still many false assumptions made about individuals with disabilities, and they are often underestimated by those who don’t know them. This, of course, plays a major part in not only access to employment, but finding successful placements that fit both the needs of the individual and the employer.

A driving force for change in employment for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) is the nationwide Employment First initiative. While the movement began years ago—with Pennsylvania being the first state to develop a policy prioritizing community employment for people with I/DD in 1990, and Tennessee coining the term “Employment First” in 2003—it has picked up steam in recent years and is shaping the future of options available to an often-overlooked demographic. In a nutshell, Employment First requires that an individual must first be given opportunities to work in the community before resorting to more restrictive environments, such as sheltered workshops or day programs.

EP!C Employment Programs
EP!C is a nonprofit organization that has served as a leader in services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the Peoria area since it began as a school for special needs in 1950. It has since grown to serve over 400 adult individuals through its residential, employment and day programs. EP!C has been supporting clients in finding and maintaining employment for over 30 years, offering both in-house and community options.

Currently, 100 individuals take part in EP!Cs Work Skills and Organizational Employment programs, which are designed to prepare participants for the next step, which may ultimately be Community Employment. In the classroom-like setting of Basic Work Skills, a focus is placed on the basics, such as safety, community access and other life skills, while the Advanced Work Skills program offers paid part-time work, in addition to classroom activities. Organizational Employment consists of paid work five days per week, the majority of which is contracted with Caterpillar Inc. Individuals who are successful here may advance into Community Employment, and those with more advanced skills may begin work in the community upon admission to EP!C.

EP!C’s Community Employment program provides services to 30 individuals who work for 20 different businesses in the Peoria area. Each employee is assigned a job coach that follows him or her for the first 90 days of employment. In the beginning, the job coach is side-by-side with the individual for each shift, and gradually, assistance is decreased until he or she becomes independent.

Expanding the Possibilities
In addition to the traditional Community Employment program, EP!C will soon be one of only two agencies in Illinois to become certified in Customized Employment, a new approach that provides more intensive preparation and support for individuals who may not be able to secure community employment using standard methods. The process includes multiple phases, including discovery, job development and systematic instruction.

The key component that differentiates the Customized Employment process from traditional supported employment is that, rather than simply submitting applications for job openings, support staff members work with the employer to customize a job description that fits both the needs of the employer and the needs and interests of the job seeker, a benefit to both parties. Through observation and discussion, it may be found that certain needs of the employer are not being met, would be better performed by someone else, or would help to expand the business. Finding a comfortable environment where an individual truly desires to work and using that interest and drive to help the employer greatly increases the chances that a placement will be successful in the long term.

There is much work left to be done to expand possibilities for people with disabilities, but initiatives like Employment First, new approaches such as Customized Employment, and programs like that available at EP!C, right here in Peoria, are making a difference in helping individuals to reach their fullest potential. iBi

For more information on EP!C’s programs, or to start the process to employ an individual at your business, contact Lauren Coyle, Director of Specialized Programs, at (309) 689-3607, or Katie Murphy, Placement Coordinator, at (309) 689-3724.

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