Helping the Disabled Join the Workforce

Danielle Dreilinger | December 22, 2009
Helping the Disabled Join the Workforce

Bill Kiernan’s phone rang. He looked at the number, shook his head, and let the call go to voicemail. No time to talk to Saudi Arabia right then.

Yes, Saudi Arabia. Though little-known to many at its UMass Boston home, the Institute for Community Inclusion (ICI), which Kiernan directs, has a worldwide reputation for disability and employment research, training, and consultation.

Founded in 1967 as an intellectual disability evaluation center at Children’s Hospital, the organization became part of UMass Boston in 2001 while maintaining affiliations with 10 universities. Over the years, the ICI has expanded its mission, now helping people of all ages with all types of disabilities. The 180-person organization, with offices at UMass Boston and in downtown Boston, anticipates a $17 million budget for 2010, nearly all of it from grants and contracts.

ICI constantly has a number of projects in motion simultaneously, but all focus on battling misconceptions and promoting inclusion, the philosophy that people with disabilities can and should have lives as similar as possible to the norm.

Inclusion is “allowing a person to make a contribution, to have a life,” Kiernan said. That might mean living in an apartment with counselor support, not an institution; working in an office filing mail, not a sheltered workshop doing piecework; taking classes on a college campus when you’re 20, not lingering on in high school—with support as needed.

In the work world, the concept has long been government policy, but has been slow to take hold. According to federal data, in 2007 only 59% of the people served by state vocational rehabilitation agencies ended up working. For disability and labor advocates alike, that’s just not enough. According to Kiernan, U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis has said that her goal is to find a good job for all.”

“Not, ‘all, but,’” said Kiernan. “All.”

Investing in this effort pays off in the long run: Studies have shown that every dollar paid into the state vocational rehabilitation system is repaid more than ten times over. In the short run, employment training and placement services cost less than adult daycare programs, and over the long term, those who are trained for and find jobs end up contributing to the system as taxpayers.

People with disabilities “want to work,” said John Harper, an assistant director in the Missouri Division of Vocational Rehabilitation who has been working with the ICI for about six years. He praised the institute’s vision and willingness to grow. It’s “a very unique group,” he said. “There are many other academic institutions that find a niche and stay in that niche.”

For instance, when the federal government began to promote One-Stop Career Centers, the ICI jumped right in to see how that system could benefit people with disabilities. ICI runs a national center promoting inclusion in the national service program (AmeriCorps and its partners), with a larger goal of both changing stereotypes and helping volunteers build their resumes.

The ICI, says Harper, has given him “a fresh perspective” helping him dig down into really improving employment services from the big picture to the minutiae. The Institute’s consultants, he said, “hold up that mirror to us and say ‘Do you really want to be that way?’”

This fall, ICI started a new push towards helping agency staff like Harper: three five-year federal grants, totaling over $14 million, each targeting a different element of the state vocational rehabilitation system.

The five-year, $7.5 million Research and Technical Assistance Center on Vocational Rehabilitation Program Management will apply lessons from general business practice to the disability field. (Kiernan himself has a business degree as well as a doctorate in rehabilitation and special education.) According to the U.S. Department of Education grant application, this center focuses on “quality assurance, strategic planning, and human resource management.” ICI must test out improvements in five to ten states, and train agencies on how to change their ways.

The other two legs of the stool are the New England TACE Center, which consults with vocational rehabilitation agencies and partners in the region, and the Vocational Rehabilitation Research and Training Center, which conducts intensive research nationwide.

Since so much of ICI’s work focuses on agencies, systems, and policies, it can be hard to get a sense of the results for individuals. The ICI-run Web site realworkstories.org highlights the concrete benefits of the projects through case studies from agency partners. For example, one woman had experience in cleaning and became interested in health and wellness; with help from a counselor, she created her own position at a local health club. A man who loved to bake got a kitchen job in a large store, then switched to the toy department after finding out that this particular bakery wasn’t a good fit.

Also hard to see sometimes: ICI itself. The institute has a low profile at UMass Boston, with most of its employees working out of the downtown office. “Not being located on campus… is a bit of a disadvantage,” Kiernan admitted. Still, he said, there’s plenty of crossover with other branches of the university: 24 graduate assistants will cycle through the institute this year from disciplines as varied as gerontology and economics. Though most won’t enter the disability field, the experience will give them a better understanding of the issues, Kiernan said—especially important with the only minority anyone can become at any time.

ICI also runs three Master’s programs training vision impairment specialists via both on-campus and online coursework. About 160 students from across New England are currently enrolled, said coordinator Robert McCulley, with 35-40 graduating each year ready to help people with visual impairments learn, find jobs, or travel independently. The end result is that people with disabilities can share in the dignity, financial benefits, and even aggravations of ordinary employment.

“They can complain about work,” Kiernan said. “Isn’t that novel?”

Tags: ici , institute for community inclusion , the point

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