In Defense of Employment
Spring is an exciting time at Skils’kin. We are actively seeking to fill many jobs for our grounds contracts at Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane and FE Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming. These jobs, made possible by the AbilityOne Program, are jobs that can alter the life trajectory of individuals with disabilities – jobs that make employment purpose and choice a reality.
The AbilityOne Program is responsible for directly creating employment opportunities for 40,000 individuals with disabilities nationwide. It creates opportunities for meaningful, career-building employment and opportunities that, quite frankly, are often not available to individuals with disabilities. These opportunities, across the nation, are empowering individuals with disabilities to achieve their employment potential.
And yet, there are those who wish to take away those opportunities.
Over the years, we have shared numerous success stories that are a direct result of the jobs we offer. Stories about individuals with disabilities who have been able to work and live with purpose because they have a job. Individuals such as:
Michael, who learned what it means to take pride in his work and experienced the joy of a job well done.
Paul, who rediscovered his drive and passion and is now actively searching for the next chapter of his career.
Chadrick, who found an accepting environment after facing discrimination.
Tyler, who, at nearly 30 years old, was able to find his first employment opportunity.
Angela, who spent two years developing her skill set and confidence before enrolling in a computer science technology school and finding other community employment.
Daniel, who, after building his skill set, found other community employment where his coworkers sing his name.
Each of these stories are a testimony from just one of the 40,000. The number 40,000 represents more than just the number of individuals with disabilities who found jobs through the AbilityOne Program: it represents the number of individuals with disabilities who have found the opportunity to change their lives for the better – oftentimes by leveraging the experience they have gained to excel in subsequent job opportunities. Each individual within the 40,000 represents a person who has found employment, and an opportunity for a better life, by being employed.
Each individual within the 40,000 represents a person who has found employment, and an opportunity for a better life, by being employed.
Furthermore, this number does not even include the thousands of family members and guardians who have found a level of peace knowing that their child or charge has the chance for a brighter, more secure future. Nor does this number take into account the number of businesses and organizations that have been able to recruit talent from this workforce.
People, however, discount the value of these jobs because in their mind these jobs segregate the employees. We disagree.
The misperceptions surrounding these jobs largely stem from what has become a very narrow definition of “competitive integrated employment,” a definition that was created by the Department of Education (ED) and its sub-agency the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA). In 2014, Congress set out to expand opportunities for people with disabilities, and others, through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act of 2014. However, rather than crafting a broad interpretation of competitive integrated employment that would encourage job opportunities, the ED and the RSA crafted a very narrow definition that differs dramatically from the definition in the WIOA statute. Furthermore, the ED and the RSA added a limiting sub-definition that requires integration to be determined at the “work unit” level and only between co-workers. In other words, the narrow definition views employment outside of its context, overlooking the essential interactions that occur within the workplace – interactions that make supported work opportunities integrated.
Consider the life of Randy, who, after his untimely passing, had scores of individuals from the community attend his funeral – friends he knew from living an integrated life made possible by his job and its affordances.
Consider Paul’s interactions with individuals at the federal courthouse in Spokane – interactions that led to a letter of recommendation from a United States attorney.
Consider how Skils’kin custodial crew members Lenka, Travis, and Monika were recognized by the 92nd Force Support Squadron at Fairchild Air Force Base for providing exceptional service to individuals at the gym on the base.
Consider, in similar fashion, how John, a food services worker at Fairchild, was also recognized by the military for going above and beyond by volunteering to help military personnel in cleaning and organizing a storage facility outside the scope of our contract with Aramark and the U.S. Air Force after he saw that they were short staffed.
How could these interactions between individuals with and without disabilities be happening if these were segregated jobs? The answer, quite simply, is that these interactions would not occur in a segregated space.
Another integral component of the problem lies in the perceptions of employment that the ED and the RSA are putting forth. Namely, the perception that these agencies are putting forth is that jobs created under programs intended to hire people with disabilities, such as AbilityOne and state set-aside contracts, are not good, competitive jobs. However, we at Skils’kin have found that when people with disabilities do not apply for jobs on our contracts, those jobs are quickly taken by people without disabilities and deemed great jobs.
Both the proponents and detractors of the jobs supported by programs intended to hire individuals with disabilities have the same purpose. They both want individuals with disabilities to live and work with purpose. They both want individuals with disabilities to have opportunities for a better life. They both envision a future where employment opportunities for people with disabilities, and all people who experience barriers to employment, are readily available to everyone. A future that, unfortunately, has not yet come.
There is still much work that needs to be done to create a workplace that fully accepts people as they are – with and without disabilities. There is still much work to be done to create a workplace that does not limit individuals by stereotypes, biases, prejudices, and preconceived notions. Currently, the jobs supported by programs like AbilityOne are feeding an abundant need, creating employment opportunities and choice for individuals with disabilities.
There is still much work that needs to be done to create a workplace that fully accepts people as they are – with and without disabilities.
To attack a very successful program that creates opportunities that would not be here otherwise is not logical. What makes sense is to leverage the known success of these jobs and help and encourage individuals with disabilities to transition to other community employment after they have built their confidence and skill set. Our government must recognize that people with disabilities who want to work also want the ability to choose the job that is right for them – and not have their already constrained choices limited by regulatory overreach.
It is clear that, owing to the AbilityOne program, thousands of individuals with disabilities are discovering their employment potential and building their résumés, professional skill sets, and livelihoods because they finally have the opportunity to experience the fulfillment of a job.
Do we really want to let successes like that go away?