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The Transformative Power of Work and Inclusion: Reflections on the Americans with Disabilities Act

By Rebecca Salon on July 26, 2017

One of the benefits of being in the disability field for such a long time is the perspective that it brings. I started in the field before the implementation of most of the public laws, legislation and legal actions that ensure the rights of children and adults with disabilities (e.g., the right to a free appropriate public education (P.L. 94-142); affirmative action and nondiscrimination in employment by federal agencies, federal contractor and subcontracts (P.L. 93-122); etc.). I have also seen the rise of the independent living and self-advocacy movements, through which youth and adults found their voice, insisted on “nothing about us without us” and created the impetus for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

For the past 10 years, my work has been heavily focused on promoting employment and economic advancement for people with disabilities, both in my role as Project Director for LEAD Center and my work with the District of Columbia’s Department on Disability Services. I’ve seen firsthand the transformation of youth in Project SEARCH programs, who went from being less-than-mature high school students to being young, motivated, well-dressed, respectful professionals shaped by their environments and the high expectations of the people around them – all within the first few days of their new work experiences. I have witnessed the same transformation numerous times, when people are given the opportunity to belong in and contribute to their workplaces.

Seeing people in settings that do not expect much of them is a poor predictor of what people can accomplish and contribute when given the chance. We all need to keep creating opportunities so that youth and adults with disabilities can become our coworkers, adding their creativity and talent to improve workplace outcomes and productivity.

How? The simplest and most effective thing we can do is to bring people into our own networks and connect people with disabilities to people you know. Most people get jobs through their connections. Helping youth and adults with disabilities broaden their connections can yield big results. So can setting the bar high for what people can accomplish.

During my early days in the field, people with disabilities were often separated from people without disabilities. Today, people with disabilities are present and fully participating everywhere – in preschools, schools, the workforce, community organizations, faith communities, decision-making boards, in Congress, etc., and in leadership and member roles. Thanks to the ADA and subsequent court decisions like Olmstead, opportunities should abound. However, attitudinal barriers and low expectations limit opportunities for many, especially people with significant disabilities. The number of people with disabilities who want to work is more than double the number of people actually in the workforce.

As President George H.W. Bush said on July 26, 1990, when he signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, “Together we must remove the physical barriers we have created and the social barriers that we have accepted, for ours will never be a prosperous nation until all people within it prosper.” In the past 27 years, we have not seen that prosperity. As noted on the Disable Poverty website, adults with disabilities are twice as likely to live in poverty when compared to adults without disabilities.

We each have a role to play in reducing the number of people who are unemployed and living in poverty. We can start by setting high expectations and by opening doors for people with disabilities into our networks and our workplaces.

Photo of Rebecca Salon, Project Director, LEAD


About the Author:

Rebecca Salon is the Project Director for the National Center on Leadership for Employment and Advancement of People with Disabilities (LEAD) Center. Rebecca is a recognized national leader in policy and program development with an emphasis on cutting edge demonstrations that promote employment and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with significant disabilities. She has over 20 years of experience with management of federally funded projects and has over thirty-five years experience working with people across the spectrum of disability. Rebecca also works at the District of Columbia Department on Disability Services (DDS), where she is the lead for DC's Employment First program initiatives, focused on creating opportunities for employment, community inclusion, and economic self-sufficiency for youth and adults in the District of Columbia. Prior to her work in DC Government, Rebecca was executive director of the Lieutenant Joseph P. Kennedy Institute. She earned her doctorate degree in Special Education with studies and research geared toward Disability Policy Studies. Her master’s and doctorate are from Syracuse University.

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How to Minimize Job Search Blues and Maximize Job Search Excitement

By Dr. Debra Kissen on May 30, 2017

Few things in life can be more depressing or anxiety provoking than looking for employment. At the same time, untreated depression and anxiety can lead the job search process to a complete stand still. As a way of commemorating Mental Health Awareness Month, the LEAD Center has asked me, Dr. Debra Kissen, co-chair of Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) Public Education Committee and Clinical Director for the Light on Anxiety Treatment Center, to outline strategies people with psychiatric and other disabilities can use to maintain or improve their mental health while looking for work.

The job search process is by definition stressful. But stress need not lead to depression and anxiety if you follow the simple tips below.:

1. Create structure for your day. Don’t tell yourself you are going to spend all day working on “finding a job.”. Instead be specific and assign timeslots for all of your tasks you hope to accomplish.    

For example:

  • 9:00-11:00 apply for jobs
  • 11:30-12:00 stretch, go for brief walk, small snack
  • 12:00 -1:00 network via LinkediIn and send emails to university alumni
  • 1:00-2:00 lunch and walk
  • 3:00-4:00 read professional journal to stay current on industry trends
  • 4:00-5:00 Meetup networking group

NOTE TO SELF: I will stay off social media and other internet sites that suck me in for limitless amounts of time during my “work day”

2. Be realistic. Job search tasks can be mentally taxing and emotionally draining.    No one can or should sustain more than two hour stretches of high concentration- related tasks, such as applying for jobs and updating resumes/cover letters. That does not mean the rest of the day should be filled with brain numbing tasks such as mindlessly perusing the internet for any image or sentence that grabs your attention. What it does means is that balance of activities is required to not only survive, but also thrive during the job search process.

On top of direct job search- related tasks, fill your day with other activities that are personally meaningful and energizing to YOU. There are many good workbooks to assist with the process of determining what matters to you such as, “Get Out of Your Head & Into Your Life,” by Steve Hayes.

Do activities that coincide with your values and that get you out of the house. You could try volunteering for a charity, joining an exercise class or attending an event sponsored by your house of worship. The hard part is forcing yourself to engage in these activities when you may feel anxious and depressed due to the stress of the job search process.   Remember, there is nothing wrong with using a little compassionate “tough love” to force yourself to function, even when parts of your brain want to curl up in the fetal position and hide out until life somehow magically changes.

3. Go "to work" even when you're not going to work. I have many clients that tell me they do their best work and they are their most effective when working from home. But I must admit, I just don't buy it. I have no data to support the theory I am about to propose, but with that disclaimer, I will share my beliefs regarding working from home.   When working from home, our brain realizes we are in a safe, cozy space and does not feel the need to be as activated or alert as it does in “non-home” environments. If you are determined to spend part of the day applying for jobs and doing other job search- related behaviors from home, I would still recommend pushing yourself to find other secondary work environments. It could be your favorite Starbucks or the new coffee shop down the street with a cool vibe or your local library or a friend’s apartment or the park. It does not matter where you go when you “go to work.”. What does matter is that you leave the house for part of the day.

4. Basic self-care matters. Good nutrition, exercise and quality sleep set your brain and body up for productivity. Just because you don't have a set schedule does not mean you should let your body's clock run wild and wake up at any time and go to bed whenever your Netflix binge is over. Set your alarm for the same time every day, for around the time the average work day would begin, and give yourself a cut off point for when you'll be done using technology, ideally by 10:00 or 11:00 p.m. PM.  

5. Find connections. There is nothing more soul sucking than isolation. When you are not working or in school there is a tendency to become socially isolated. You are going to have to work at this, but join Meet up groups or local civic organizations or a stamp collecting group or anything else that gets you connected with others.

Remember that the job search process can be quite anxiety ridden and depressing and there's no shame in getting additional support. There are many qualified therapists who can give you the added boost that you need to successfully move through the job search process.   To find a qualified cognitive behavioral therapist I recommend checking out the Anxiety and Depression Association of America website to find a therapist resource. 

Dr. Debra KissenDr. Debra Kissen is the Clinical Director of the Light on Anxiety Treatment Center of Chicago. She specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy based treatment to children, adolescents and adults with a focus on anxiety and stress-related disorders, including OCD, PTSD, panic disorder, agoraphobia, social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, specific phobias, separation anxiety disorder, compulsive skin picking, trichotillomania and other Body Focused Repetitive Behaviors (BFRBs). Dr. Kissen applies the principles of evidence-based treatments while at the same time treating the whole person, with deep respect for the human spirit and the challenges we all face on our journey through life.

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Using an ABLE Account for Employment Support

By LEAD Center on April 27, 2017

The Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act, which was signed into law on December 19, 2014, aims at improving the financial stability of persons with disabilities by authorizing tax-advantaged savings accounts for people with disabilities, known as ABLE accounts. Assets in ABLE accounts can be used to cover any “qualified disability expense,” which can include housing, transportation, support services, and any other expense reasonably related to disability. Additionally, funds in the ABLE account will not be taken into consideration when determining eligibility for federally-funded means-tested benefits, such as Supplemental Security income (SSI) and Medicaid.

ABLE accounts create several economic options for people with disabilities that were largely unavailable previously because of their impact on federal benefit programs and disability support programs.Alex Ghenis

Alex Ghenis first heard about ABLE and ABLE accounts through his job at the World Institute on Disability. He says the organization had provided a wide array of financial education, including asset-building and work incentives, and ABLE was right at the front of their efforts. The more he learned about it, the more he felt encouraged to sign up.

Alex, who has a spinal cord injury, says having a disability affected his employment and asset-building opportunities in many ways. Among other things, including constraints related to his ability to earn due to income limits associated with being on public benefits, he faced savings limits that made him have to balance income and expenses. These constraints prohibited him from being able to save for his future and limited job opportunities simply because of his disability. Alex also has higher medical expenses that can affect his financial stability and economic future.

Alex says having an ABLE account opens up a huge amount of possibilities for his economic future. “Being able to save isn't just about putting money away; it's about being able to hold a higher-paying job and build a career, to invest and even learn about investing and to have some financial peace of mind.”

He plans on using his ABLE account for a variety of expenses, whether for emergency expenses or everyday bills like rent, groceries and the occasional medical expense, such as a new wheelchair part not covered by insurance. Through his ABLE account, Alex also hopes to save enough to pay for large, life-changing expenses as they come along.

ABLE accounts can help people with disabilities by giving them the ability to save for emergencies or other sudden expenses, in addition to short and long-term expenses. Lack of savings for sudden expenses can make it harder to keep a job. For example, if a person lacks savings and uses a car to commute to work, that person might not be able to fix the car in the event of a sudden breakdown and might lose their job. In the event of a sudden health care emergency, a person without savings may lose wages due to lost work time or have out-of-pocket health care expenses that are unexpectedly high. This sudden financial crisis may interfere with the person’s ability to pay for transportation to work or other work-related expenses, leading to job loss. Since the ABLE Act enables people to accumulate savings beyond previous asset limits, it may help people with disabilities retain employment by allowing them to save for these expenses.

In May, the LEAD Center will release a brief titled, “The ABLE Act and Employment: Maximizing the Effectiveness of the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act as a Tool for Increasing the Financial Stability and Employment Outcomes of People with Disabilities.” 



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