Wednesday, February 21, 2007

It's Coming!! Minnesota's Employment First Summit

Editorial Note: I am a member of Minnesota APSE-The Network on Employment and serve on this organization’s Board of Directors. In the past year, Minnesota APSE has been leading a statewide effort to promote employment as the first choice for Minnesotans with significant disabilities. We are not talking here about any type of employment, but rather individualized, integrated employment in regular jobs at competitive wages and benefits inside the Minnesota workforce. In support of this initiative, Minnesota ASPE is collaborating with other State, county, and private organizations, business leaders, disability service professionals, consumers with disabilities, family members, legislators and policymakers, and interested citizens to plan an Employment First Summit in our State.

In 2006, I had the opportunity to attend and speak at a summit with a similarly defined purpose in the State of Indiana. Indiana’s Employment First Summit was a successful venture and led to consensus about potential solutions to nagging systemic questions and barriers inhibiting the job placement of Hoosiers with significant disabilities. In Minnesota, we are hoping to achieve a similar outcome and energize interested stakeholders in making integrated employment the first choice for Minnesotans with disabilities. The concept paper below identifies the need for an Employment First Summit in Minnesota and what our collaborators and sponsors are hoping to accomplish together.
Minnesota’s Employment First Summit

In November of 2006, the federal Department of Labor (DOL) announced the national unemployment rate in the United States had dropped to a five-year low of 4.4 %. Despite America’s flourishing economy and job growth, its largest minority population is far less likely to be employed in the workforce than its peers. This minority population includes millions of Americans who live with disabilities. Despite our best efforts at "rehabilitation," most national studies reveal the unemployment rate for people with significant disabilities to be in the range of 60-70%! This unemployment rate is a national embarrassment and unacceptable to most fair-minded Americans.

Interestingly, Minnesotans are often reported to be employed at rates higher than nationally reported averages. However, the unemployment rate for Minnesotans with disabilities tends to climb to nationally reported levels when standards for competitive employment in the workforce at regular wages and benefits are applied. In other words, a high percentage of Minnesotans with significant disabilities are unemployed and/or served in center-based programs that feature segregation, sheltered work, low wages, and non-work options.

A Foundation for Change in Minnesota

National research initiatives in the area of job placement and employment have repeatedly documented the capacities of people with disabilities to secure jobs in the workforce when a willing employer is found and the individual has access to customized employment support. In truth, the real challenge for Minnesota is not “rehabilitating” people. Rather, it is our need to rehabilitate the vision and goals driving Minnesota’s educational, habilitation, and rehabilitation service systems for both youth and adults with disabilities. In other words, Minnesota needs to rebuild its infrastructure and craft an educational and adult service system that encourages, supports, and rewards paid, integrated employment in the workforce as the first option for every individual.

Why an “Employment for All” Vision Matters in Minnesota

There are several reasons why an employment for all philosophy makes sense for Minnesota:

1) It's a human rights issue. Why shouldn’t Minnesotans with significant disabilities live and enjoy their lives as their peers do? Working is fundamental to adulthood, quality of life issues, and earning the means to exercise our freedoms and choices as citizens.

2) We can’t afford to have people with disabilities not working. It’s important for all Minnesotans to contribute to their self-support up to the level of their capabilities. A lifetime of financial dependency on disability benefit programs such as Social Security and Medical Assistance is a costly proposition. We need to change this pattern to one of self-support for as many people as possible.

3) We need everybody contributing to our economy. Virtually every national workforce study warns us about emerging labor shortages in the United States. Living with a disability doesn’t mean people don’t have abilities! Why can’t the job placement of unemployed people with disabilities be at least a partial answer to our forecasted labor shortages?

4) Americans want people with disabilities contributing in the labor force. In a recent national Gallop Poll sponsored by America’s Strength Foundation, 92% of the respondents reported they held a “more favorable” or “much more favorable” opinion about companies who hire people with disabilities. In addition, 87% of these respondents said they would prefer to “give their business” to companies who hire people with disabilities!

5) Minnesota will lead. The State of Minnesota has always been in the forefront of social change and creating better opportunities for its residents with disabilities. Our State is well-poised to move ahead with progressive changes and lead the nation in developing or creating integrated employment and higher education outcomes for its youth and adults with disabilities.

Minnesota’s Employment First Summit: A Blueprint for Change

The core vision of the summit planning committee and sponsors is a building a Minnesota economy and workforce where youth and adults with disabilities, including individuals with significant disabilities, have real opportunities to become competitively employed, use their talents and skills, work alongside other Minnesotans in the workforce, and earn meaningful, competitive wages thereby contributing to their self-support.

Summit’s Purpose and Goals

The summit’s leadership and planning group is not interested in conducting an event to further “study” or rehash issues driving the high unemployment of Minnesotans with disabilities. Many of the proposed reasons are well-known and documented. Instead, our defined purpose for this summit is to identify how the State of Minnesota can move forward and make historic changes leading to increased job placement and integrated employment in the workforce as the first option for all youth with disabilities. Our fundamental goal is to change conventional thinking about what is possible by sharing new ideas and strategies to narrow this unemployment gap and increase the productivity of all people with disabilities living in our communities.

Summit’s Focus: Youth & Young Adults in Transition from School to Careers

The summit’s sponsors and collaborators recognize the best way to change the future is to begin by creating new pathways to opportunities for Minnesota’s youth. For this reason, we have chosen to focus this summit on developing integrated jobs in the workforce or enrollment in Minnesota’s higher education system as the preferred option for all youth and young adults leaving secondary education. The summit will directly address new accountability measures that must be implemented across all federal education programs and initiatives. Specifically, the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) is charged with responsibility for implementing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and monitoring each state’s compliance with performance indicators to insure accountability in obtaining desired outcome benchmarks.

Specifically, the summit will focus on performance indicators #13 and #14. These indicators address a coordinated transition and planning process for youth with disabilities and increasing post-school outcomes, including competitive employment, for youth one-year following graduation. Minnesota is now in the process of setting performance targets for the next six years and poised to report annual performance outcomes associated with these indicators to OSEP.

Summit’s Sponsors and Collaborators

Minnesota's Employment First Summit is an event co-sponsored by Minnesota APSE: The Employment Network, Minnesota Department of Education, Minnesota Pathways to Employment, Minnesota Department of Employment & Economic Development, Minnesota Department of Human Services, and Region-Five Rehabilitation Research & Training Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In addition, numerous non-funding partners have agreed to participate and assist in this event.

The Summit’s Logistics

Minnesota’s Employment First Summit will be held on June 12, 2006 at the Minnesota Arboretum located at 3625 Arboretum Drive, Chaska, Minnesota. On June 11, Minnesota APSE will also host its Annual Training Conference at the Arboretum. Both events will focus on making integrated employment in the workforce the first option for youth and young adults with disabilities in transition from school to careers.

The Summit’s Core Strategies

Minnesota’s Employment First Summit is designed to accomplish the following–

1) 120 leaders of change will be invited to a structured, one-day event with a goal to solicit their ideas regarding strategies for resolving or minimizing the known effects of identified barriers to employment through effective action. This may include specific policy reforms, transportation, funding, services redesign, new legislation, professional staff retraining, more effective coordination of education and adult services, assistive technology applications, use of customized employment techniques, etc..

2) summit participants will be champions of customized and supported employment from regions representing the State of Minnesota and nominated by the summit’s planning committee. Participants will represent specific “affinity groups” including people with disabilities, educators, employers, direct service professionals, program managers, funders, policymakers, family members, disability advocates, State and county agency directors, and interested community citizens.

3) summit activities will be professionally facilitated to secure valuable feedback, ideas, strategies, and recommendations to address specific areas of reform; all feedback will be recorded, catalogued, analyzed, and communicated in a consensus report representing the views of invited attendees;

4) nationally-known experts will share emerging and effective transition practices leading to increased job placement, self-employment, and customized employment of youth and young adults with significant disabilities leaving secondary education;

5) all proceedings will be recorded and prioritized so that helpful ideas and useful strategies are identified and organized by each affinity group as well as by integrated teams comprised of representatives from all affinity groups.

The Summit’s Products & Outcomes

1) A formal report will be written and shared with all stakeholders who are crucial to making the summit’s consensus recommendations viable in the State of Minnesota. This report will include specific outcomes of the summit’s proceedings, a blueprint for future actions to be taken, and specific recommendations to be shared with key stakeholder groups.
2) The summit report will be shared with educators, agency directors, WorkForce Center managers, disability advocates, and business leaders throughout the State of Minnesota. This document will serve as a blueprint for new interagency agreements between public and private organizations, businesses, and interested citizens in local communities; these agreements will recommend measurable goals to increase higher education enrollments and enhance job placement and integrated employment outcomes in the workforce for Minnesotans with significant disabilities.
For more information about Minnesota's Employment First Summit, you can contact Bob Niemiec at or me at


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