Researchers improving employment for individuals with disabilities in wake of court ruling
LAWRENCE — University of Kansas researchers are helping efforts to ensure thousands of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities have access to competitive employment with living wages following a landmark decision by the Department of Justice and U.S. Supreme Court.
Those researchers have provided training to about 80 percent of the educators in Rhode Island who teach students with intellectual disability. They have been trained to use evidence-based strategies developed and evaluated at KU to support students with intellectual disability to achieve competitive employment upon graduating from high school as well as have a say in determining their own career and life paths.
In April 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a consent decree with the state of Rhode Island, stating the latter had been violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by providing only or primarily “sheltered employment” options for thousands of individuals with disabilities. The jobs and services, which often had individuals performing menial tasks for subminimum wage pay, violated the ADA in restricting individuals’ access to integrated employment. The ruling will enforce the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Olmstead v. L.C., which requires individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities to be served in the most integrated setting appropriate.
Michael Wehmeyer, professor of special education and director of the Beach Center on Disability and the Kansas University Center on Developmental Disabilities, both within the Schiefelbusch Institute for Life Span Studies; and Karrie Shogren, associate professor of special education and associate director of both centers, are leading efforts to provide training to both educators and, eventually, employment service providers in Rhode Island.
“We’re very interested in using our interventions to help people get ‘real jobs,’” Shogren said. “But the individuals, educators and state need support to be able to do that. The idea that sheltered employment was good for anyone is not working.”
Wehmeyer and Shogren will continue their work with Rhode Island for the next five to 10 years to help educators and adult service providers learn and implement interventions to promote self-determination to enable students and adults with intellectual disability to prepare for and obtain meaningful, integrated employment upon completion of school or in transition from sheltered employment. Self-determination is the idea that individuals, given proper support that focuses on their strengths instead of deficiencies, are capable of deciding on their own life goals, career paths and carrying them out.
The researchers will also collect data throughout the project to determine how many individuals obtain competitive jobs, how they perform, the effectiveness of self-determination in education and employment and other factors. Their findings will likely inform how other states implement similar plans. The system of sheltered employment is common across the nation, and while an improvement over the institutional system of the past, it is still quite often discriminatory.
“Rhode Island is an interesting test state for these efforts,” Wehmeyer said. “It is the first application of Olmstead in relation to where people work. This could very well continue to play out in other states across the country.”
The researchers are, in fact, already making similar efforts in Kansas. They have partnered with Griffin-Hammis Associates LLC, a leading agency specializing in supporting people with disabilities to obtain integrated employment on a project funded by United Healthcare that promotes self-determination and employment training throughout the state. They will train employment service providers to deliver a similar intervention to that being used by teachers in Rhode Island. KU researchers will work with four social service providers throughout the state and track progress in a similar fashion to the Rhode Island program.
As part of the Rhode Island program, Wehmeyer and Shogren have partnered with The Hartford Financial Group to encourage employers to hire individuals with disabilities.
“It make sense to be using these measures,” Shogren said. “We’ve seen when self-determination is put into practice, individuals with disabilities are able to choose their own paths and increase their quality of life.”