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Cynthia Reeves | SBJ

A Conversation With ... Jan Kraft

Executive Director, Abilities First Inc.

Posted online

In this tight labor market, I’ve heard more people talking about this concept of a hidden workforce. Harvard University research found in 2021 there were 27 million of those workers, including people with developmental disabilities. What are the barriers that keep people out of the workforce?
From the employer perspective, some of the barriers are really and truly just lack of exposure. We all have certain assumptions and then there’s sometimes fear, not recognizing people with developmental disabilities and [that] people with disabilities are really just people. One barrier for employment for people with disabilities who require personal care assistance to function independently is keeping access to Medicaid because no other source – for example, private insurance from an employer – will pay for this service, and it is unaffordable for all but the most wealthy.

I actually have a meeting (May 19) with the state to talk about how to better navigate this problem, which has historically relegated people with disabilities to poverty. (Without a solution,) our entire state will continue to limit these employees to minimal work hours in order for them to stay poor enough to qualify for Medicaid. This will mean employers missing out on maximizing the work time for great employees, lost potential income tax revenue for government, a decreased rather than increased economic benefit and continued social consequences that surround poverty.

What employment services does Abilities First offer?
We offer classes to help people learn about, maybe, how do I dress for the job, or what’s the best way to handle interview questions, or putting together resumes. We also work a lot with the employers to help them understand, whether they have a specific person that they are employing and just need some information or maybe they just want some tips. We also will go in and talk to employers more generally. Often, employers worry about accommodations, and is that going to be really expensive? Am I putting my organization at risk if I hire someone with a disability because we’re going to incur these expenses? Most of the time, any accommodations and adaptations are not really expensive. And we do it all the time for people who don’t have disabilities. We look at people and we recognize what are the strengths of this person as an employee, and we play to those strengths.

What are some success stories for the people you serve and the business partnerships you’ve formed?
There’s a long list. We do have a number of both small and large employers that we’ve worked with. I’m thinking of a specific individual who had been employed for years, and things were going well for the individual. However, there were some issues that needed to be addressed, and so we went in and we worked with the employer and talked through what’s working, what’s not working, and gave some very specific suggestions for, in our field, what we call behavioral intervention techniques. Things that we do all the time with other employees, but they may be a little worried about how do I do this with this person with a disability.

One of the things that we like to do when we approach an employer is talk about how important it is that all of the things that are being done for all of your employees are really interwoven through your whole workforce. A lot of times, we just don’t even think about those things that we have done for people who don’t have disabilities and think we’re going to have to do a whole bunch for this person because this person has a disability. Building that interconnectedness of the entire workforce is really critical.

Another example of an employee who worked for a particular employer: she worked for the same employer for over five years. Then there was a change in management and the new manager came in and everything was different and they fired that employee, and it was because that employee had never been connected to the rest of the workforce. That employee was 100% only connected to that manager. When the manager left, all the supports were gone.

With your apprenticeship programs, what industries have you found success in?
In the hospitality industry and clerical workers and administrative assistants. Those industries are struggling right now to find and keep good employees. And we have found that apprenticeships are a really great way to make that happen because it’s a more intensive training and support and longer term than a lot of other ways that employers will onboard new people.

Jan Kraft can be reached at jan@abilitiesfirst.net.

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