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Building an Equitable Recovery: RespectAbility Advises Nebraska on Solutions for People with Disabilities

Lincoln, NE, June 10 – This week, the Nebraska Workforce Development Board met to discuss the status of workforce practices in the Cornhusker State. In response to this meeting, RespectAbility, a national, nonpartisan nonprofit organization, submitted testimony on how to implement best practices, advocate for greater inclusion and improve the standing of people with disabilities in the workforce.

“When it was passed with broad, bipartisan support in 2014, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) invested unprecedented resources into efforts to get people with barriers to employment into the labor force,” said Ollie Cantos, RespectAbility’s Chairman. “Now, after the pandemic that has reshaped our economy, it is time to devote significant attention to supporting the economic advancement of students, job-seekers, and entrepreneurs with disabilities.”

There are more than 110,000 working age (18-64) Nebraskans living with some form of disability. Before the pandemic, 50.8 percent of the working age population of people with disabilities were employed. It is critical that Nebraska’s Workforce Development Board listen to the individuals with disabilities and advocates impacted by these unemployment rates. In order to make the workforce more inclusive, and to find practical ways to make the workforce more accessible for the entire population, RespectAbility collects, summarizes, and publicizes ideas on key workforce solutions. To learn more about RespectAbility’s advocacy work, please visit our Policy website.

RespectAbility’s full testimony is presented online and below:

To: Members and Staff, Nebraska Workforce Development Board
From: Staff, Board, and Apprentices of RespectAbility
Re: Public Comments for June 10th, 2022

Dear Gov. Pete Ricketts and Chairperson Mark Moravec,

Thank you very much for the opportunity to offer our comments for the Nebraska Workforce Development Board’s June 2022 meeting. RespectAbility is a nonpartisan, nonprofit disability inclusion organization dedicated to fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for millions of Americans with disabilities.

One-in-five Americans have a disability according to the U.S. Census Bureau. People with disabilities are America’s largest minority group and the only one that, due to accident, aging, or illness, anyone can join at any time. Indeed, in Nebraska itself, there are 218,665 residents living with some form of disability and they make up fully 11.5 percent of the Nebraska’s population. In that number, it is critical to recognize the great diversity and intersectional identities of people with disabilities in Nebraska. Out of that number, there are 175,16 Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) people with disabilities. That means that 8.1 percent of all Nebraskan’s with disabilities are also members of other marginalized communities and face barriers such as systemic racism.

These facts have wide-ranging implications for the Nebraska’s overall workforce development planning, and the unique challenges facing people with disabilities need to be recognized across the entire scope of your board’s work.

In these comments, RespectAbility’s team of subject matter experts and advocates with disabilities have collected our critical ideas, policy proposals, and key data to inform your board’s decision-making process. While we are a national organization, we are eager to collaborate with you and your team.

Our ideas and recommendations are as follows:

Focus on Closing the Gap in Labor Force Participation Rates between Nebraskans with and without disabilities

As the Cornhusker State and the nation grapples with strategies to get people back to work and to fill in labor shortages, it is worth recognizing the good and bad news facing workers with disabilities. Nationwide, as a direct result of the Pandemic, more than 1 million workers with disabilities have lost their jobs nationwide.  Back in 2020, Nebraska’s employment rate for all working-age people with disabilities in America was 48.1 percent, compared to 81.5 percent of people without disabilities.

People with disabilities want to work, can work, and are striving to work more than ever before. As such, RespectAbility has consistently advocated that decision-makers in the workforce development system at the national, state, and local levels use the Labor Force Participation Rate as a key metric for measuring efforts to get more people with barriers to employment into the workforce.

As of Spring 2022, the labor force participation rate for working-age people with disabilities is now 2 full percentage points higher than it was before COVID-19. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, people with disabilities now have a 37.8 percent labor force participation rate, compared to 77.2 percent of those without disabilities. Decision making entities like your workforce board need to adopt a focused strategy for getting more people with disabilities into the workforce.

Look at Strategies to Close the Gap in High School Graduation Rates

The link between educational attainment and ultimate employment success is clear. As such, gaps in educational attainment, especially around high school completion rates, have serious long-term impacts on the labor force, the talent pipeline, and the economic wellbeing of Nebraskans. As such, it is worth paying attention to certain key, disaggregated data points that show where the gaps are in educational attainment for young Nebraskans, especially BIPOC students with disabilities.

In Nebraska’s K-12 public schools, there are more than 46,043 students with disabilities. The changing demographics of the nation are reflected in the student population, with about 35 percent of them being Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC) individuals with disabilities. 11.4 percent of students with disabilities nationwide, or almost 720,000 students, identify as English-language learners. The gap in graduation rates between students with and without disabilities continues to undermine their futures. Critically, among the class of 2019, the high school graduation rate for students with disabilities was only 69 percent, compared to 88 percent of students without disabilities.

This means that thousands of students with disabilities are leaving Nebraska’s school system with uncertain prospects for finding a place in the workforce. Numerous studies have demonstrated that college graduates will earn far more money than college students who dropped out. By far, those earning the least are students without a high school diploma. Legislators have a moral imperative to invest in and expand services that will support the educational and employment success of more students with disabilities.

Expand on the Use of Online, Cohort-Based Apprenticeships for Workers in the Knowledge Economy and the Nonprofit Sector

The pandemic has made remote work an accepted reality for thousands of workers, normalizing a common reasonable accommodation request long championed by workers with disabilities. This has opened an unprecedented window for people with disabilities to contribute to the success of nonprofits, communities and beyond. RespectAbility has retooled our own National Leadership Program from being a cohort-based internship program located in Washington D.C., into an all-virtual, work-from-anywhere skills-based training program. Such approaches have major implications for efforts to train workers for good-paying jobs in the knowledge economy and the nonprofit sector.

Cohort-based models offer a cost-effective method for delivering workforce services, especially for transition aged youth with disabilities. Instead of the inefficiency method one-on-one client services typified by the usual vocational rehabilitation service system, cohorts offer the chance to blend and braid funding to support training and build in a social component among cohort participants crucial to soft-skill development.  As such, we recommend that professionals involved with the provisions of Pre-Employment Transition Services (Pre-ETS) examine proven models of cohort-based services and look to build on models such as:

  • Project RISE in Virginia: Project RISE (Resilience, Independence, Self-Advocacy, Employment), sponsored with the support of the Virginia Chapter of National Federation for the Blind, is a cohort based, skill development focused training program for blind and low vision students ages 14-21. Over the course of a 10-month program, students are trained in independent living skills and in professional skills for use in future employment. Students build social connection, even in virtual spaces by connecting and collaborating with fellow program participants. Working with each student, educational and career goals are developed and supported through internship or volunteer placement. For more information about RISE, please visit their website.
  • Project SEARCH and the Caring Economy: Project SEARCH is a school-to-work transition program for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities that prepares them for good paying careers in hospitals, elder-care, and the caring economy. By placing students with disabilities into three internships at a job site over the course of an academic year, student learn skills, build their confidence and gain competitive work experience. There is a serious opportunity to expand Project SEARCH and help more job seekers with disabilities launch careers in the caring economy. To learn more, please visit their website. 

Focus on Encouraging Disability Owned Businesses by Utilizing Best Practices from Other States

There is an opportunity for a Nebraska state model which prioritizes contract and purchase services for certified disability-owned businesses as a disability employment model. To measure success, it is also important to ensure that WIOA employer engagement measures the type of employment relevant to small business activities, including disability-owned businesses, in addition to large corporate employers. For example, Iowa VR has embraced entrepreneurship and self-employment as one of the key virtual services provided to the people with disabilities that they serve. Iowa quickly invested in the technological infrastructure to provide virtual services statewide, adopted a cohort-based model for fostering social connections among VR clients on Zoom and tested other emerging practices throughout 2020. Nebraska could learn from the innovations and ideas tested by Iowa and Iowans with disabilities.

Leveraging Federal Contractors and Section 503 to Drive Employment Opportunities for Workers with Disabilities

In looking at new strategies, alternative pathways, and economic sectors to support the aspirations of jobseekers with disabilities, it is worth recognizing the unique place occupied by companies doing business with the federal government. Section 503 specifically contains legislative language about non-discrimination against individuals with disabilities, and subsequent regulations have been used to encourage contractors to hire individuals with disabilities through affirmative action. Beginning in 2016, the Office of Federal Contracting Compliance Program (OFCCP) set a new utilization goal for contractors to have up to 7 percent of their workforce, in all job categories, be individuals with disabilities. The 7 percent goal was very much intended as a gauging goal and a tool to encourage great diversity efforts.

In seeking to meet the challenge of Section 503 and the 7 percent goal, contractors have adopted a wide range of strategies including encouraging disability self-disclosure among employees and staff. Contractors are prohibited from asking the nature of a disability however staff may self-disclose through demographic documents and data collection. There is comprehensive information available to support contractors through great national organizations like the National Organization on Disability (NOD) and Disability: IN.

There are major, multi-billion-dollar contractors doing business with the federal government across Nebraska. Examples of major federal contractors include:

  1. Nelnet Servicing, LLC $146.02 million (1% of total contracts).
  2. Northrop Grumman Systems Corporation $63.76 million (0.4% of total contracts).
  3. Perspecta Enterprise Solutions LLC $61.67 million (0.4% of total contracts).
  4. Signature Performance, Inc. $36.18 million (0.2% of total contracts).
  5. Pro-Mark Services, Inc. $19.02 million (0.1% of total contracts).

As an organization that advocates on behalf of job seekers with disabilities and their families, we believe that collecting the best ideas, emerging practices and innovative policies is critical to ensuring that Americans with and without disabilities have equal access to good jobs. If you have any questions or would like to discuss these matters further, our team stands ready to help, however we can. Thank you.

These comments were prepared thanks to the hard work and close attention of RespectAbility’s Apprentices, Staff, and Board Members. 

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