Walsh hearing puts crucial disability employment issues in spotlight

As labor secretary, Boston mayor can make a real difference

DURING SENATE CONFIRMATION hearings Thursday morning, our ears perked up at the question posed by Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania to Boston Mayor Marty Walsh: As labor secretary, what will you do to ensure people with disabilities aren’t left behind? 

Sen. Casey pointed to the current disproportionate unemployment rates among the disability community that mirror the trends we saw following the Great Recession. We were heartened by the commitment reinforced Thursday by Mayor Walsh — as leader of our nation’s workforce strategy, he will build on the progress we’ve made locally and look closely at the barriers that prevent individuals with disabilities from reentering the workforce as we recover from the pandemic. 

Massachusetts has come a long way in disability access and inclusion over the past 50 years: We’ve effectively shifted away from sheltered work sites and into community-based employment, empowering a broad spectrum of individuals with disabilities with meaningful employment and a sense of purpose. In just the last seven years, our organization, Triangle, Inc., has seen a 600 percent increase in employment opportunities for the individuals we serve.

Today, we have more work to do to preserve – and build on – these gains. COVID-19 has brought unprecedented challenges to service providers across the state, and a renewed sense of urgency when it comes to disability employment. In 2020, according to data from the Department of Labor, 19 percent of adults with disabilities were employed in the workforce compared to 66 percent of their nondisabled peers. This disparity can be traced back to adolescence: By the time special education students reach adulthood, they often have no solid work experience and have received very little in the way of vocational training or job prep as part of their schooling.

And these statistics predate the pandemic, which has eliminated or curtailed many of the job placement gains that programs like ours have made in recent years. Temporary employment reductions in the service industry, for example, are impacting individuals with disabilities at a higher rate than their nondisabled peers.

For us, these trends and statistics have names, faces, and livelihoods attached. Joe’s landscaping job was one of many lost. Norman’s job keeping tables at Five Guys ready for diners in Medford was also eliminated, as was Alison’s receptionist position in Reading. Ray, a graduate from our culinary program, no longer has a corporate cafeteria job where he used to serve employees. And Tina’s position at a North Shore hotel is on hold.

We look forward to the day when all of these jobs are restored, but still fear that, without a significant push for inclusion both nationally and at the state level, decades worth of progress in disability employment gains is at risk. So what does this look like?

We must ensure in-demand training and certification programs are available at all our community colleges. We must pilot other tracks in public vocational schools. And we must expand vocational opportunities in competitive employment in our public high school transition programs, including more internships, job coaches and part-time opportunities. 

This isn’t just the right thing to do. Innovative programming and partnerships, like those with municipalities and inclusive employers such as Spaulding Rehabilitation Network, have created a “virtuous pipeline” of eager, dedicated employees with remarkably high retention rates that strengthen a company’s bottom line. In many cases, employment also reduces taxpayer burden, with earned paychecks replacing state benefits.

Meet the Author
Meet the Author
Economic empowerment is the final – and we would argue, most urgent – frontier for full inclusion for people with disabilities, with employment as its most powerful tool. Like anyone else, people with intellectual disabilities not only earn money and a paycheck, they also earn the satisfaction and camaraderie of working alongside their non-disabled peers, contributing just much as they do. We owe it to our economy to train and strengthen all workers who can and should participate in it, and are glad to have Secretary-Designee Walsh as a strong partner in this mission. 

Coleman Nee is the CEO of Triangle, Inc., a Malden-based agency that provides those with disabilities with employment and housing assistance. He is a former Massachusetts secretary of veterans affairs. Rachel Kaprielian is vice president of the Triangle, Inc. board of directors and former Massachusetts secretary of labor and workforce development.