An Interview with Catherine Strode
It’s estimated that 85 percent of people with intellectual or developmental disabilities are unemployed or underemployed. The state legislature is in the process of passing a bill (Senate Bill 18-145) to address that problem and lower that rate in Colorado. The bill implements three main recommendations of a five-year strategic plan created by a State Advisory Partnership. The bill’s sponsor, State Senator John Kefalas (Senate District 14) says the bill also supports a culture shift.
In an interview with Catherine Strode, Senator Kefalas says the bill supports the concept of ‘Employment First’. The concept is based on developing a culture of meaningful employment for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities which moves them out of sheltered workshops and into community-based jobs.
What problem does this bill address?
“We are pushing the idea of ‘Employment First,’ or competitive integrated employment. We want to make sure we do a culture change so that people understand that everyone wants to work. Most people want to work within their capabilities. We need to support them in making good decisions with supportive employment services. They can work in what’s called a competitive integrated employment setting. We are trying to move away from segregated work settings. Those are the two issues we are trying to address: help more folks get jobs; and help to get them into jobs in the community, not in a sheltered workshop. That is defined in statute as competitive integrated employment.”
What is the central importance of this issue to the state of Colorado?
“It’s a work force development issue. We have a low unemployment rate (with exception) and small businesses and other types of businesses indicate they have a hard time finding people to do the work that needs to be done. Some of that gap can be filled by people with intellectual or developmental disabilities. It’s about addressing work force issues and it’s about supporting people with disabilities to fill some of those jobs. It’s making sure that we, as a society, recognize and embrace the fact that most folks want to work. These are people that are on Medicaid, through Home and Community Based Services (HCBS) waivers. These are people who are eligible for supported employment services. We have some good systems in place. We have some good best practices and examples of success. We want to build on that. In this bill there are key provisions to move the dial in a good direction.”
What recommendation on training does the bill implement?
“It was identified that the job people with intellectual or developmental disabilities are looking at is often what is referred to as a ‘customized job.’ It requires a supportive employment specialist, or a job coach, to help with that transition. Ultimately, the goal is to be able to pull back from the job coach. One of the gaps that was identified is that we can have better outcomes if these supportive employment specialists had better training and certification. That is one piece of this bill. There are over 500 people this would impact. Over a five year period we want those people to get nationally certified training. By improving their skill set, there will be greater success in helping people find a good match, a good job, and providing the supports for that person to be successful as they transition. Some people might need that support for a long time but the goal is to pull back some of these supports so that people can be on their own.”
What is the employment ‘discovery process’ recommendation?
“If somebody is receiving supportive employment services, you need folks who know how to get into the community and work with businesses to help find a good match. It is called a ‘discovery process.” This would apply to the Department of Labor and Employment, the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. This would require that we would use the ‘discovery process.’ The discovery process is basically a job career process where we look at the individual holistically: what their preferences are in the work setting, their job history, and their experience in school. That is another provision that I think is really critical. Right now, it doesn’t happen the way it should be happening. This is basically putting in statute that the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation needs to do that. It’s an example of a best practice that should help.”
What is the data gathering recommendation?
“Years ago, they were doing data gathering and to some extent they still do it. The bill adds some other factors, other data sets we want to collect. One of them is the employment sector. What employment sector is the individual working in? Also, we want to collect the number of people who are eligible for supportive employment services who may not be getting services. The idea is that if we have better data collection, we will be able to evaluate whether these other interventions are making a difference. The goal is to see how many people are working at minimum wage or above in different job settings and to tract other aspects that would help inform us going down the road. That is critical.”
What will the state gain from this bill’s passage?
“If we have more people engaged in the work force meaningfully, they are earning an income and paying taxes. That helps in terms of revenue to the state. The state benefits because we are supporting people who can have greater dignity and self-worth by finding employment, and being supported in that employment so they can be successful, by bringing home a pay check. It also encourages the concept of self-determination. Ultimately, it’s part of a culture shift.”
Catherine Strode is Advocacy Denver’s Communications and Policy Specialist. She holds a Masters degree in Public Administration with an emphasis in Health Care Policy. Catherine publishes Policy Perspective, featuring interviews with state policy makers on issues that affect the work and mission of Advocacy Denver.