My brother, Douglas Jarett, had Down syndrome. He worked for over 30 years at Ludington Library in Bryn Mawr. Although we always knew the benefits for Doug being able to work at the library, until his recent death, we had no idea the impact that Doug had on his work community.
The Lower Merion Police Department and the Lower Merion Library System both dedicated Facebook posts to Doug and how his capabilities demonstrated for them that people with disabilities were able to contribute to their workplace and their community. Doug was a great example of how competitive, integrated employment benefits everyone — not just the individual employee.
Employment matters for people with disabilities for more than just financial reasons. Employment matters because people with disabilities are seeking the opportunity to achieve independence, just like anyone else. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania lags behind other states in jobs for the one-in-five Americans living with a disclosed disability.
In 2018, about 329,760 Pennsylvanians with disabilities had jobs, putting that state’s disability employment rate at 37.4%. According to the Institute on Disability, that is in line with the national disability employment rate of only 37%. A recent study by RespectAbility, a nonpartisan disability inclusion organization, found that Pennsylvania ranks 30th out of the 50 states in terms of disability employment.
Employment First is one strategy that Gov. Wolf has approved that should start showing improved dividends by expanding Pennsylvania’s rate of employment. It is a strategy where critical social programs are oriented toward ensuring that getting a job is the top priority for individuals with disabilities. That goal is reinforced with high expectations among the teachers, coaches, and parents around that individual.
Companies that embrace employees with disabilities clearly see the results in their bottom line. According to Accenture, disability-inclusive companies have higher productivity levels and lower staff turnover rates, are twice as likely to outperform their peers in shareholder returns, and create larger returns on investment.
We at Judith Creed Horizons for Achieving Independence (JCHAI), a nonprofit that serves adults with developmental disabilities, including autism, in our area, have seen the benefits of the Employment First approach for people with disabilities as well as the benefits for employers.
Indeed, fully 77% of the individuals for whom we provide independent living supports are employed at least part time in competitive, integrated jobs in the community — double the Pennsylvania and national average. Our members are able to contribute tax dollars to the community, their experiences to the workforce, and are able to provide a significant portion of their own support. The employers report to us that their workplaces are enhanced by having our clients working there. It is a win for everyone.
The fact is that disability is part of the human experience. It is nothing to fear because most of us will be affected by it eventually, whether by accident, aging or illness. Opening more job opportunities to people with disabilities will mean stronger communities and a better economy for all. Achieving that requires all of us working together because people with disabilities are the right talent, right now.
Stacy Jarett Levitan is executive director of Judith Creed Horizons for Achieving Independence (JCHAI), a multifaceted nonprofit organization with cutting-edge inclusive, supportive vocational programs and living options for adults with developmental disabilities.