Seattle, WA, Sept. 28 – After two years of an exclusively virtual conference due to COVID, the Pacific Northwest Employment Forum took place in-person in Spokane, WA last week. More than 250 attendees from Washington, Oregon, California, and Hawaii gathered together to advance the work of workforce development, Employment First policies, and true equitable employment for people with disabilities.
The opening keynote speaker was Carrie Davis, the Vice President of Patient Experience at Hanger Clinic, the nation’s largest prosthetics and orthotics provider. Born without her left arm, Davis has worn a prosthesis since she was 9 months old. She shared how she was initially ashamed and afraid to present her disability and prosthesis, and would hide her arm behind her back. But she grew to see her disability as a part of her full existence, and it has shaped her outlook and approach to life and disability justice.
The closing speaker was Julie Christensen, LMSW, PhD, the Executive Director of APSE (Association of People Supporting Employment First). Christensen also served as the Senior Disability Policy Fellow for the Harkin Institute at Drake University. She spoke about some key principles to advancing Employment First and competitive integrated employment. The two that resonated the most with me were elevating equity in our work and aligning our services with policy. In my role with RespectAbility, these are things I do on a daily basis to ensure that our policy and workforce development programs lead to impactful outcomes for people with disabilities.
I was honored to be asked to conduct two sessions at the forum. The first session was titled “Infusing Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion into our Work,” and it spoke to how employment provider organizations and workforce development entities need to look at how they are approaching their service delivery from a DEI lens. If they do, it will improve their outcomes and lead to them serving more people from marginalized and excluded communities. The second session was in partnership with WISE (a training organization based out of WA State) and was on the concept of “Recruit, Cultivate, Retain” to address the dwindling workforce in employment services. We discussed how organizations can improve processes for recruiting and welcoming staff, as well as what actions we all could be taking to cultivate leadership in staff that leads to longer retention.