Increasing community-based, competitive, integrated employment for individuals with disabilities has become a growing focus in Virginia and across the country. This national movement, referred to as Employment First, emphasizes employment in the general workforce as the first and preferred option for individuals with disabilities receiving assistance from publicly financed systems. Employment First is rooted in the assumption that all people, including individuals with significant disabilities, are capable of working real jobs, in typical work settings, alongside co-workers without disabilities. Competitive wages and benefits equal to one’s job responsibilities are paramount with this initiative, as is the opportunity for employee advancement.
In addition to presuming that all individuals are capable of competitive work, the success of Employment First relies largely on systems change efforts, including increased collaboration among agencies serving individuals with disabilities. Experience shows that when provided with the right supports, people with significant disabilities are capable of employment. The outcomes include a more diversified workforce, healthier economy, and persons with disabilities having the opportunity to further develop their financial independence, self-esteem, self-efficacy, and personal and professional relationships.
The Employment First initiative does not just impact adult services. With the combination of Employment First and the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), there is an increased emphasis on educators effectively supporting students with disabilities to prepare for competitive integrated employment. Youth with disabilities are to be provided with extensive pre-employment transition services so they can successfully join the general workforce. In Virginia, all students develop Academic and Career Plans in middle school and every student with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) begins receiving transition planning services the year they turn 14. Virginia’s Department of Education’s (VDOE) is implementing person-centered planning, career development, and career pathways as means to better prepare youth for the world of work. The focus on preparation for competitive employment is also exemplified by the requirement that all students getting a Standard Diploma with credit accommodations complete a Career and Technical Education (CTE) credential. In addition, VDOE is developing competencies in employment, academics, and independent living, with self-determination and technology embedded in every domain for students earning an Applied Studies Diploma (referred to as a Special Diploma prior to July 1, 2015).
Collaboration among agencies in Virginia, including the Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services (DARS), the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services (DBHDS), Virginia Commonwealth University’s Rehabilitation Research and Training Center (VCU-RRTC), and VDOE, have contributed to the development of programs and services that aim to better prepare transitioning youth with disabilities to engage in the workforce. Increased Project Search sites and pilots for customized employment and school-to-work best practices are among the outcomes of this enhanced collaboration. As the benefits of Employment First continue to become apparent, we can only expect to see more creative and collaborative efforts to further promote this imperative initiative.