What about hiring people with disabilities?

By Douglas J. Usiak, April 29, 2022

I have to admit, in March, it was surprising when the U.S. Department of Labor stated that general unemployment had dropped to the lowest rate since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic — 3.6 percent (some reports say it’s the lowest in 50 years) — especially since I know plenty of people who are unable to fill all the openings that their firms continue to see.

Then I recalled that the unemployment rate only includes those who are actively looking for work and seeking unemployment payments. Those who are fed up with the types of jobs they’ve been working — remember those articles about “The Great Resignation”? — and are being more selective in their employment quests are not counted. Nor are those who have simply despaired of finding gainful work and don’t bother to look anymore. Many of these are people with disabilities.

Some of these consumers are served by Independent Living of Niagara County and our sister Centers for Independent Living (CILs), and we can tell you from first-hand experience that many do indeed have the skills, sharp minds and ability to work, and can certainly contribute to their potential workplaces and broader society.

If certain famous names come to mind, admittedly not many can claim to have the abilities of deaf-blind educator Helen Keller, nor the insights of renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, but it’s unfair to compare any individual, with or without disabilities, to them. How many help-wanted ads have you seen with the proviso “Only geniuses need apply”?

Unfortunately, too many small business, community and other employment officers don’t realize that most people with disabilities fall into the vast middle ground between helpless and extraordinary and are eminently capable and willing to do the job. Often all that is needed is an employer who is willing to teach how the job is done, acceptance of the person’s supports such as a reasonable accommodation, and ... a chance. But after a recent audit, New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli observed, “People with disabilities often face great obstacles in finding and keeping the jobs they want, and the pandemic has only made things harder.”

You may have heard that the New York State Education Department has a division that is primarily focused on assisting individuals with disabilities to achieve and maintain employment and to support independent living through training, education, rehabilitation and career development: Adult Career and Continuing Educational Services – Vocational Rehabilitation (ACCES-VR). So, they and CILs are both strongly committed to the overarching goal of bringing citizens with disabilities into the work force.

Logically, you, reader, would think that the aims of your local Independent Living Center and ACCES-VR would be the same. Ironically, for a number of years, this has not always been the case.

However, something that gives me hope is that the state Education Department has a new deputy commissioner who oversees ACCES-VR, Ceylane Meyers-Ruff. Having previously held a couple of positions in the state’s Office for People With Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD), she had coordinated cross-system collaborations with other state agencies as part of the Most Integrated Settings Coordinating Council (MISCC), thereby working to create a statewide plan to provide services to people with developmental disabilities in the community instead of in institutions. Later, she spearheaded OPWDD’s efforts to increase the number of people with developmental disabilities who are engaged in integrated competitive employment. We have high hopes that Meyers-Ruff will partner with the CILs to improve the community’s perceptions of the value of people with disabilities and their contributions to our workforce.

Douglas J. Usiak is the chief executive officer of the Western New York Independent Living Inc. family of agencies that empower individuals with disabilities to gain the information and resources needed to improve their quality of life and participate in society on an equal basis. For more information about its services and programs call 716-284-4131, extension 200.