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Opening Statement of Chairman Tom Harkin at the HELP Committee Hearing: “The Future of Employment for People with the Most Significant Disabilities: A Roundtable Discussion”


Contact: Justine Sessions / Kate Cyrul
September 15, 2011
Tel: (202) 224-3254

Opening Statement of Chairman Tom Harkin

At the HELP Committee Hearing, “The Future of Employment for People with the Most Significant Disabilities: A Roundtable Discussion”

*As Prepared for Delivery*

“Last week, President Obama made an impassioned plea for this Congress to focus our attention on the jobs crisis in America. On Tuesday, the Census Bureau reported that nearly one in six Americans are living in poverty, with the number increasing each year for the last four years. With unemployment stubbornly holding at over 9 percent and the economy in a fragile state, the President is correct that it is time to pass a jobs bill that will create employment opportunities for millions of Americans and help our economy get on track.

“Today, we will focus the HELP Committee’s attention on an often overlooked piece of the employment puzzle—the shockingly low labor force participation rates of workers with disabilities. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), as of August, there were more than 15 million adults with disabilities in the U.S. between the ages of 16 and 64. Of this group, less than one third were participating in the labor force, and over two thirds were not in the labor force. Although BLS has only been reporting on disability employment rates in their monthly updates since 2008, it is worth noting that the size of the disability labor force has shrunk by over 600,000 people in the three years for which we have data. That represents a more than 10 percent reduction in three years. During the same period, the size of the workforce for people without disabilities shrunk by less than one percent. That means in the last three years, people with disabilities have been leaving the labor force at a rate more than 10 times the rate of the non-disabled population. This is unacceptable and we need to take action to change this trend.

“Today’s roundtable will focus on an important element of the disability community—people who have significant disabilities and who often experience multiple barriers to employment. As we noted in March when we held a HELP Committee hearing focused on people with intellectual disabilities, some of the biggest barriers to success in the labor market for people with significant disabilities can be low expectations, discriminatory attitudes, and a failure of imagination.

“The purpose of today’s roundtable is to hear from a diverse group of experts about how they would improve our education, workforce development, and human service programs so that people with the most significant disabilities who want to work are able to find a place in the labor market and have a career that works for them. Over the past year I have been focusing on how to improve the disability employment situation with meetings, hearings and legislation. I am working with Ranking Member Enzi and the other members of this Committee to use this roundtable and other hearings we are holding to inform a multi-year disability employment initiative. My goal is to make the policy changes necessary and engage with leaders in the business and disability communities so that the size of the disability workforce will grow from 4.9 million to 6 million by 2015.

“As we approach today’s topic, we should always keep in mind the diversity of needs and experiences in the disability community. For purposes of today’s discussion, I am focused on people with the most significant disabilities because they do not always benefit from traditional disability employment strategies. For example, some sources have estimated that the labor force participation rate for people with intellectual disabilities is below 25 percent, and for people with severe and persistent mental illness is below 10 percent. Moreover, I believe that policies that work for people with the most significant disabilities (things like workplace flexibility, assistance with starting and sustaining a micro-enterprise, and tailoring the elements of a job to the capacities and interests of the worker) will benefit other workers with and without disabilities. In addition, people with the most significant disabilities have the highest participation rates in our most expensive safety net programs—Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security Disability Insurance, and Supplemental Security Income—which means that if we are successful in helping this population achieve economic self-sufficiency, that can result in substantial savings for the Federal government.

“As Senators Murray, Enzi, Isakson and I have been working on a bipartisan reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act, we have sought to make changes in the Vocational Rehabilitation title of that bill that would strengthen VR’s emphasis on competitive, integrated employment and prioritize services for young people with disabilities as they enter the workforce for the first time. Today’s roundtable will inform our ongoing efforts to reauthorize WIA, and I hope will spur new thinking that can inform other legislative efforts like the President’s jobs bill and other bills.

“Now, I would like to introduce our distinguished panel of experts, representing a range of perspectives and views on this topic.

"First I would like to introduce Ruby Moore, the executive director of the Georgia Advocacy Office, which is the protection and advocacy agency for people with disabilities in Georgia. Ms. Moore has worked for 35 years advocating for and running competitive, integrated employment programs for people with significant disabilities.

“Next we have Katy Beh Neas, Vice President for Government Relations for Easter Seals. Katy is a disability policy expert representing a national network of Easter Seals affiliates that operate a wide range of employment programs for people with significant disabilities.

“Michael Pearson is the president and majority shareholder of Union Packing, LLC in Yeadon, Pennsylvania. Mr. Pearson brings the perspective of a successful small business owner who has made a real effort to hire a diverse workforce, including people with disabilities.

“Next we have Julie Petty of Fayetteville, Arkansas, who is a national leader in the self-advocate movement. Julie is the past president of Self Advocates Becoming Empowered, a national membership organization that brings the first person perspective of individuals with significant disabilities to public policy discussions. Julie currently works at Partners for Inclusive Communities, the Arkansas University Center of Excellence in Developmental Disabilities.

“Deb Pumphrey of Ottumwa, Iowa, is the parent of a 27 year-old with multiple and complex disabilities. Deb is a parent leader and advocate in Iowa who has worked hard to find employment that works for her son, and currently chairs the board of Tenco Industries, which operates a community-based recycling program that employs her son and other people with significant disabilities in the Ottumwa area.

“Next we have Janet Samuelson, the executive director of ServiceSource, an agency that serves people with disabilities in nine states and the District of Columbia. Ms. Samuelson brings over 35 years of experience in the disability field and leads a non-profit that provides employment, day treatment, training and support services to over 19,000 individuals.

“Dr. Fred Schroeder is an expert in vocational rehabilitation, having served as the Commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration under President Clinton. Dr. Schroeder took steps during his tenure at RSA to make clear that the goal of the public vocational rehabilitation program is competitive, integrated employment and to hold rehabilitation counselors accountable for achieving that goal.

“Finally, we have Dr. Jonathan Young, who currently serves as Chair of the National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency advising Congress and the President on public policy. Dr. Young brings the perspective of an attorney and historian who has chronicled the history of the disability rights movement and advocated for policies that advance the goals of the Americans with Disabilities Act—equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency.

"Thank you all for being here today. I’d like to now begin what I hope will be a spirited and fruitful discussion by laying out two topics to organize our conversation.

First, what is the right spectrum of employment options that will address the needs of workers with the most significant disabilities?

Second, what are the best proven strategies for workers with the most significant disabilities to increase their earnings over time and achieve career advancement?

“To help frame the conversation, I want to offer a working definition of “most significant disability” in the context of employment. For purposes of today’s discussion, people with the most significant disabilities are people for whom competitive employment has not traditionally occurred, has been interrupted or is intermittent because of the disability, or who, because of the severity of their disability, need intensive or extended support services to work competitively.”

To listen to the hearing online, click here.