While federal law allows employers to pay many people with disabilities less than half the national minimum wage, a new five-year, $6.2 million grant is supporting University of Maryland education researchers’ work to create a pipeline to meaningful, fairly compensated jobs.
UMD’s Center for Transition and Career Innovation (CTCI) is partnering with the state of Connecticut on the Connecticut Pathways to Integrated Employment (CTPIE) project, which offers specialized services customized to each person’s interests, skills and needs, said Christy H. Stuart, the center’s director and a research professor in the College of Education.
“Ultimately, the project will help provide all people who desire to work with the opportunity and the means to be successfully employed,” she said.
The center is advising the state on evidence-based practices, supporting the Connecticut-based resource teams that are developing interventions, and training staff at the organizations that will execute the program. For example, CTCI is teaching employment agency staff how to customize job positions to be a good fit for each individual with a disability. CTCI will also evaluate the project and develop a toolkit to help other states that want to engage in similar work.
Connecticut is one of 14 states to receive a Disability Innovation Fund grant from the US Department of Education to transition to a model known as “competitive integrated employment.” In this type of employment, people with disabilities receive industry-standard wages and benefits and work alongside people of all abilities. This model is particularly important for workers with intellectual and developmental disabilities, who are often employed at subminimum wage in sheltered workshop settings where all employees have disabilities.
The CTPIE project, which received a total of $13.9 million from the U.S. Department of Education, will transition people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to competitive integrated employment in three major areas: essential workers (including health care), green jobs and transportation. After officials heard praise for similar work CTCI has done nationally and in Maryland and other states, Connecticut’s Bureau of Rehabilitative Services reached out to the center.
In most U.S. states, an 85-year-old federal law makes it legal to pay employees with disabilities less than minimum wage. This practice has been banned in Maryland and 13 other states, yet nationwide, more than 100,000 workers with disabilities currently earn less than minimum wage–with most taking home $3.50 an hour or less, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Unsurprisingly, individuals with disabilities also experience higher rates of poverty and unemployment than people without disabilities, according to the Annual Disability Statistics Compendium.
In such a landscape, competitive integrated employment has many benefits for people with disabilities, said Kelli Thuli Crane, CTCI co-director and an assistant research professor in the College of Education: “It helps to build their financial security and independence, engage them in the community, build their social networks and improve their self-confidence.”
One of the most important aspects of the project, Stuart and Crane said, is the direct involvement of people with disabilities and their families on the resource teams that are developing the project’s interventions and practices.
“Their lived experiences provide valuable perspectives that the professionals on this project may not fully understand,” said Stuart. “More importantly, including them sends a message that their perspectives are fully valued and respected.”
The project is currently recruiting 500 Connecticut residents with disabilities, including about 350 youth ages 16 and up who are transitioning from school to employment, and 150 adults who are currently employed at subminimum wage. Beginning in October, participants will receive individualized support based on their own interests, skills and needs, including career counseling, on-site job support and transportation.
“Truly, we believe anybody can work who wants to work, given the right accommodations and support and the right job match,” said Crane.