WHEN HE signed the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, President George H.W. Bush promised the legislation would "mainstream" Americans with disabilities, allowing them to achieve employment and live as independently as possible.
Yet, the real-world effects of that landmark legislation actually have worked to keep many of these Americans out of the workforce. With costly incentives embedded into the Medicaid delivery system, the law has not rewarded citizens who seek independence from welfare.
Therefore, many Pennsylvanians with a disability are not encouraged to live with their families, participate in the job market and contribute to society – something they desperately want. Federal disability policy instead favors greater dependency, leaving these Americans cut off from employment options.
The good news is that Gov. Tom Corbett's Cabinet for People with Disabilities, the Department of Public Welfare and a coalition of businesses are spearheading a more promising alternative: private-sector employment. When disabled workers are connected with private companies, employers acquire the hardworking, skilled employees they need and the disabled achieve the financial independence they need to support their families. Additionally, these solutions reduce the demands placed upon the over-burdened welfare system, while increasing the number of disabled Americans earning a paycheck.
The success of this solution is obvious at Lowe's regional distribution center in Luzerne County. Lowe's, with the help of the Arc of Luzerne County, has implemented a model, originally formulated by Walgreens, for offering a new employment track, complete with special training for people with physical and intellectual disabilities. The National Technical Assistance and Research Center has acknowledged the Walgreens-Lowe's model as one of the most effective in the nation. Because this business-centered strategy generates better economic outcomes, other major employers in Pennsylvania are seeing the benefits and are stepping up to replicate similar programs.
To support their efforts, the Department of Public Welfare is working closely with the governor's Cabinet for People with Disabilities.
Not only has the governor commemorated October as Pennsylvania Disability Employment Awareness Month, but the department reached out to employers across the commonwealth to participate in the first Pennsylvania Disability Employment Summit, Oct. 4-6, in Hershey. The conference explored how businesses can thrive while also ensuring that more of our fellow citizens can find employment, an affirming work environment and a greater sense of self-worth.
These efforts to help more disabled Pennsylvanians reflect key reforms in the Department of Public Welfare's employment-and-training system, reforms that are helping to transition Pennsylvanians off of welfare and into employment. Welfare recipients, with or without disabilities, now benefit from a system that more effectively helps them find and keep jobs.
That system is outcome focused and includes welfare-to-employment centers, now paid based on their performance, in the statewide Employment Advancement Retention Network. A performance payment is made to the center when a welfare recipient receives a job, not merely when one searches for a job. Additional payments are made when the recipient retains that job. Moreover, every county welfare office now has a designated counselor to help anyone who receives assistance services, with or without a disability, with his or her transition into the workplace.
These policy solutions that focus on moving all able-bodied welfare recipients into the workforce make good economic sense. Most important, they remain the choice for Pennsylvanians with disabilities and their families, rather than the antiquated, top-down disability policies pushed by the federal government. By offering progress on the path to independence – free from labels – they deliver what all people want: a chance to achieve the American dream.
Gary D. Alexander is Pennsylvania's secretary of public welfare.