Disability Employment Town Hall Open Letter

I sent this letter to the Missouri Congressional Delegation (Sen. Claire McCaskill, Sen. Roy Blunt, Rep. Lacy Clay, Rep. Ann Wagner, Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, Rep. Vicky Hartzler, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, Rep. Sam Graves, Rep. William Long, and Rep. Jason Smith) as a follow-up to my town hall held June 28, 2017.

I recently held a town hall in Webster Groves, Missouri, with the topic of improving employment outcomes for people with disabilities. Over 100 people attended the town hall. While many in attendance were from St. Louis, people came from as far away as Columbia and Moberly, Missouri. I would like to share with you some of the things I took away from that town hall, because I think these are important on a federal policy level.

There is a spectrum of abilities of people with disabilities, and there needs to be a continuum of services. Some people are unable to stand for long periods of time but can work all day at a computer. Others may be unable to feed or dress themselves but can work given the right accommodations and supports. Still others may need the repetition of a factory job. The range of abilities means each person must be evaluated on their talents and skills individually, without being written off as “a disabled person”.

While my goal is to increase community employment in Missouri, a large number of attendees wanted to talk about Sheltered Workshops. First, many attendees indicated that WIOA (the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act) doesn’t work for Missouri. In particular, they are concerned about provisions that require young adults (ages 21-24) to jump through extra hoops before they can enter Sheltered Workshop employment. They also indicate that it is a problem that individuals cannot work in community employment while they are in a sheltered workshop, because part-time community employment would help them transition out of Sheltered Workshop employment. Finally, they indicated a fear that Sheltered Workshops would be forced to close. Closing Sheltered Workshops would cause problems not only to the individuals who work in Sheltered Workshops, but their families as well, and we should make efforts to keep them open unless there is another option available for each person who is enrolled in a Sheltered Workshop.

I hope to increase community employment, but to do so, policy makers and business leaders have to work together to make sure community employment is more available to people with disabilities. Another concern that was voiced is the need for supports that are currently only available through federally-funded programs. A person may need personal assistance for activities of daily living, but be fully functional intellectually and capable of working with the right technological supports. Unfortunately, the way the system is set up now, that individual cannot afford to work in a job that pays them what they are worth because doing so would mean a loss of Medicaid personal assistant benefits—a benefit that cannot be replaced through the private insurance market.

Finally, there is an issue with transition services for students. While schools are required to include a transition plan for high school students in their IEP, the town hall participants would like to see this happen even earlier. They voiced a problem with “silos” in the Transition Plan that do not anticipate movement from Sheltered Workshops to community employment. And many services stop for young adults when they turn 21, which is a real problem because their disability doesn’t disappear when they leave school.

I would appreciate the opportunity to work with you on these important issues. Please have your staff contact me at sarah.unsicker@house.mo.gov or at my office at 573-751-1285. I look forward to speaking with you about improving employment outcomes for people with disabilities.