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“What do you do?”

This simple question is often the starting point of many relationships. In Western culture, employment is often seen in as a key dimension of a person’s identity, demonstrating his or her role and value in society.

But what happens when society teaches a student that employment is not an option for them?

Sadly, for centuries this has been the message sent to youth with disabilities. Without successfully employed role models with disabilities – legislation that, in reality, discouraged gainful employment, and a lack of good research showing the benefits of work – youth with disabilities have often been sent the wrong message about their ability to get a job.

The national employment rate of people with disabilities ranges between 14 and 20 percent. That’s for adults. Even fewer youth with disabilities are getting work experience before finishing high school, placing them at an awful disadvantage with their non-disabled peers when they get ready for work once finishing school.

But, as they say, the times, they are a changing.

On May 17, 2016 Gov. Tom Wolf signed House Bill 400, the #IWantToWork campaign’s, initial foray into legislative advocacy, into law as Act 26 of 2016. With this legislation, approved unanimously in the House and Senate, sets in place better supports so youth with disabilities can gain irreplaceable job experience and skills. Prior to the passage of this bill, youth with disabilities were unable to access job support until their last semester of high school, preventing them from understanding the world of work, gaining self-awareness, and building their resumes.

Act 26 is not just about gaining work skills through employment, it is about changing society’s understanding of disability. Our culture, through legislation and generations of ingrained attitudes and misunderstandings, has inaccurately made disability synonymous with inability. In fact, to receive adult disability services, one must prove one’s inability to work. That’s wrong, and it’s what the #IWantToWork Campaign is working to change.

By promoting and supporting students with disabilities in gaining paid, integrated employment before graduation, the changes created by Act 26 in the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, will help employers recognize the benefits of employing this underutilized workforce and teach students that having a disability should not prevent them from having a job that they love.

We’re off and running, yes, running, on our next initiative – making sure Pennsylvania is truly an Employment First state. We started with youth – setting the stage for youth with disabilities to get their first, and most valuable, job experiences. Employment First is a broader effort, focused on making sure all people with disabilities have opportunities to work in integrated settings with nondisabled people, at competitive wages, and with the opportunity to climb the career ladder.

Yes, the times, they certainly are a changing. Won’t you join us?

Learn more about our Employment First legislation.

By Dr. Josie Badger

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