A recent report has warned that the trust fund undergirding the Social Security Disability Insurance program (SSDI) is nearing depletion. At the same time we hear reports – mostly from states – that Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments are a vital safety net for many individuals and families.
We believe there’s a way to relieve these pressures and create a path to meaningful lives for many individuals with cognitive and physical challenges. That path is bound up in a single word: Jobs.
But first, let us introduce John D.
John D. is a 21-year-old with autism. He has learned to read, do basic math and master skills that help him get along in the community. John also now has a job – a full-time job – at the National Institutes of Health. It is not a “special” job. It is a job that requires him to file papers, follow orders for materials to be delivered, maneuver across the large NIH campus and interact with other employees. He has this job because NIH saw value in and agreed to participate in a program called Project SEARCH.
With a few of years of work-experience training at The Ivymount School, John and several classmates were selected by NIH as Project SEARCH interns for a year. They worked on the NIH campus in a variety of jobs with the support of a job coach. At the end of the year, John was one of eight young adults offered a job. He lives at home, gets himself to and from work using public transportation and, most important, is a self-supporting, contributing member of society. John’s supervisor will tell you that he is among his most dependable employees, arriving every day on time, often being the first to volunteer to work on holidays.
Once a candidate for SSI support that averages about $6,600 annually, John D. now pays taxes that support the system.
In our experience, for every John D., there are many others who can find only part-time work or no work at all. Even though some may have more significant deficits, they are clearly capable of holding a job. The problem is that there just aren’t enough jobs for individuals with disabilities – a problem that has grown worse under current economic conditions.
For John D.’s classmates, it means they cannot find a job. Some of them, undoubtedly, will end up on SSI as parents look to the years ahead, when they may not be around to support their children.
It doesn’t have to be this way. A poor jobs environment today is no excuse for not focusing on a serious issue in an innovative way – paying attention not just to training individuals with disabilities to be productive in the workplace but also paying attention to the companies who are potential employers. It makes no sense to train a person for a job if no one is willing to hire them. In 2012, only 33 percent of individuals with disabilities were working, compared to 74 percent of those without a disability.
This was a major issue before the current economic downturn and it will be one when it is over. It is not a short-term problem. It sits at the core of the challenge facing individuals with disabilities seeking to work.
If a significant number could get jobs, they would see individual fulfillment while creating huge savings in the SSI/SSDI systems. Individuals and their families would be better off with more income from a job than government support. This would also lead to fewer individuals seeking support and, in turn, paying taxes.
We would like to suggest a focus and investment at the very highest levels of business, government, and among foundations on the issue of job availability for individuals with disabilities. To be clear, that is job openings in addition to the current emphasis on job training.
There are examples of success. For years, Walgreens has had a highly successful policy of hiring individuals with disabilities. The advocacy organization, Autism Speaks, recently sponsored a nine-city tour dedicated to small-enterprise job creation that featured 13 businesses that have created successful enterprises that hire individuals with autism.
If businesses were to create training modules to start programs and employer support was expanded, there could be endless opportunity. Yes, it might require start-up funding for new enterprises and potentially tax incentives, but the potential returns undoubtedly far outweigh the costs.
The time is now to focus on those “what ifs” and create jobs where they are so desperately needed.
By Jan Wintrol and Richard M. Weintraub
Wintrol is CEO and Weintraub is past Board president at The Ivymount School in Rockville, MD.