Employment First or Employment When?

Employment Inclusion for people with disabilities has become a significant consideration in the pursuit of greater quality of life and citizenship. Over the past several years, employment participation has received much attention from policy makers and funders, and the transition from segregated employment preparation services to true Employment Inclusion services has become a ‘best practice.’

The Employment First Agenda has been promoted since 2009 by the Association for Persons in Supported Employment (APSE), an American advocacy association dedicated to employment inclusion for people with disabilities. Despite the strong values supporting employment inclusion, the success of this movement has been primarily in its dissemination, rather than its realization. Employment participation rates have not changed dramatically as a result of this, nor any previous initiatives in the last 20 years. Canada, while competing extremely well with the US in employment inclusion for people with barriers has not realized significantly better results.

It must be noted that policy directives conceived far from the implementation phase often fail to realize their intended outcomes. The support needs of the target demographic and the resources required to deliver these supports are key considerations. Beyond this, service provider organizations require commitment and dedicated resources for leadership development and innovation in the area of progressive employment service design and delivery. Service design and innovation is not an area that has been widely encouraged or supported and service providers are in many cases working with employment facilitation models which are under-developed, outdated or which fail to recognize the needs of all parties involved (i.e. the funder, job-seeker and employer).

Interestingly, the information required to create effective, sustainable, high outcomes services is quite abundant. Actual ‘Knowledge Mobilization’ (the utilization and implementation of this information into practice), however, remains sporadic. This is an area for development across the sector – as is effective evaluation. Information, resources and time are all required in order to support the development of these service elements. All other strategies to support the transition to an ‘Employment First’ agenda are somewhat ‘secondary.’

The basic elements for superlative Employment Inclusion Services have been present in Canada for years. What has been missing is a solution-focused, nationwide dialogue, correct allocation of resources and some consistent definitions around employment and best practices. Recent awareness and promotion of Employment First, Diversity and Inclusion and Social Return on Investment (SROI) leave us at an historic ‘tipping point.’ Canada is quite capable of fostering the development of an Employment Inclusion model worthy of recognition around the globe if our next steps are in the right direction.

Under 30% of Canadians with intellectual disabilities are employed (as opposed to approximately 67% of non-disabled Canadians). If most people with intellectual disabilities require support to find and /or retain employment we can reasonably assume that these employment statistics would improve dramatically when ALL individuals with an intellectual disability who want employment are actually provided with the services they need to achieve Employment Inclusion.

As it stands, the provincial departments which fund supports for people with intellectual disabilities are spending much more on segregated and congregate care environments than is spent on normative employment and inclusive environments. Not only is this ‘parallel world’ for people with disabilities more costly, it actually works against inclusion and longer-term reduction in direct support costs. Ultimately, the statistics around intellectual disabilities and support services reveal key factors in the low employment participation rates for people with intellectual disabilities. Although 85% of developmental disabilities are categorized as ‘mild’ less than 30% of diagnosed people are receiving employment support

In Alberta, where Employment First is a current provincial ‘strategy’ the branch of government responsible for supports for people with intellectual disabilities spends less than 5% of its budget on employment support. How can we begin to approach parity in employment participation for people with intellectual disabilities when the resources provided to help them achieve this goal are so limited? Could we double their employment participation rates by simply doubling the resources allocated? In a word – yes.

Spending more to solve a problem is generally not a welcome solution in government social spending circles, however, Social Return on Investment, is extremely high for effective employment participation initiatives and poverty reduction. That said, it’s not just a spending issue, it’s also a culture issue. Encouraging and supporting people with disabilities at a younger age to explore career directions and think about what they want to do for work, part-time jobs in high school, inclusive post-secondary education opportunities, – all of these ‘normal’ expectations support later inclusion.

It’s also important for service providers to step out of antiquated, fear-based, segregated service models and focus on becoming equally valuable to employers as well as job seekers. Canadian Business is ready for diversity and ready to include people with disabilities. How ready are we as service providers to engage these employers and to help them build their capacity to access talent and diversity?

There are many facets to the issue of low employment participation; government, service providers, advocates and employers all have a role to play in solving this problem. Collaboration, innovation and commitment are all that is required for a more inclusive Canada.

-Sean McEwen; CASE Director – Alberta