ODEP Promotes its Employment First Initiative

The Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) is working to push a growing movement, Employment First, and has been publicizing the initiative in light of the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) being signed.


Former Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, who introduced the ADA to the senate and also served as grand marshal at both New York City’s first and Chicago’s Disability Pride Parades this year, spoke about the initiative at a Labor Department ceremony on July 21. Although there has been progress made in employing people with disabilities, he said it has not been enough and still strives to see people with disabilities engaged in “competitive, integrated employment.” He expressed this further in a post he wrote for the Department of Labor’s website:

However, the work is far from over. We must continue the fight for policies that will make the goals of the ADA a reality: equal opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency for people with disabilities and their families. We have barely seen any increase in employment of people with disabilities since 1990 despite what every survey and study says that people with disabilities want the benefits, dignity and power of work.

Harkin cites public accessibility as an area that has been improved, but employment remains far behind and the numbers show this. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 17 percent of people with disabilities as defined by the ADA are employed. Therefore, he said, the ADA’s main focus right now is all about jobs: “We’ve got to stop limiting people because of disability.”

Employment First seeks to change this. According to the Department of Labor’s website, the movement encourages publically-financed systems to commit to integrated employment for all workers including those with disabilities. The site defines “integrated employment” as “work paid directly by employers at the greater of minimum or prevailing wages with commensurate benefits, occurring in a typical work setting where the employee with a disability interacts or has the opportunity to interact continuously with co-workers without disabilities, has an opportunity for advancement and job mobility, and is preferably engaged full-time.” In short, the movement was designed to put people with disabilities into positions where they can work with and receive the same wages as other employees.

On July 21, Thomas Perez, Secretary of the Department of Labor; Dennis Daugaard, Governor of South Dakota; and Jack Markell, Governor of Delaware, signed a letter issued to state governors the following day detailing the goals, as well as benefits, of Employment First:

This growing commitment at both the State and Federal level to the principles of Employment First is predicated on data that validates the capabilities of individuals with significant disabilities for performing competitive, integrated employment with the proper customization of supports and accommodations. In short it’s the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do for taxpayers, and it makes good business sense.

Not only would employing people with disabilities be beneficial to those seeking jobs, but it would also be a good business move for companies. With the percentage of Americans in the labor-force at a low 62.9 percent, tapping into the pool of potential employees with disabilities would be strategic to help close this gap. As Markell said, “This is not about charity or doing the right thing, this is about doing the right thing for your business.”

Realizing that there may be states that wish to support Employment First’s goals but lack the resources or knowledge to do so, the ODEP also launched the Employment First State Leadership Mentoring Program (EFSLMP). The EFSLMP’s objectives are defined as:

Provide mentoring, intensive technical assistance (TA) and training from a national pool of subject matter experts and peer mentors to core states as they transform existing policies, service delivery systems, and reimbursement structures to reflect an Employment First approach;

Facilitate virtual training and knowledge translation on effective practices;

Facilitate dialogue on shared experiences related to effectuating Employment First policies and practice;

Link participating states with current Federal initiatives that are focused on promoting state-level systems-change conducive to Employment First objectives; and

Evaluate the impacts of the investments in state Employment First systems change efforts over time to identify common challenges faced by State governments and validate innovative strategies and effective practices that lead to the successful implementation of Employment First objectives.

States interested in becoming a core EFSLMP state must go through an application process, which would then grant them added in-person and virtual benefits, including strategic guidance, practice & policy reform and peer-to-peer mentoring.

The letter promoting the Employment First movement states, “We need the best of what every American has to offer. Americans with disabilities comprise a highly untapped resource of loyalty, ingenuity, and productivity.” While the progress made over the past 25 years since the signing of the ADA has cannot be disputed, employment of people with disabilities remains a weak area. The implementation of Employment First nationwide would not only put qualified individuals in jobs they deserve, it would also increase the number of working Americans and ultimately improve the economy.

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