Wednesday, October 8, 2014

State of Kansas losing ground in efforts to help disabled land jobs

By Jim McLean
KHI News Service

TOPEKA — State officials are intensifying their efforts to help Kansans with disabilities get jobs.

But advocates in the disability community are skeptical that an initiative announced Monday will be enough to reverse a recent trend that has seen a steady decline in the number of Kansans with disabilities placed in jobs.

The initiative, dubbed “End-Dependence Kansas,” will provide $25 million in mostly federal funds over the next five years to organizations that operate programs that help people with disabilities find employment.

“Work is an essential component of self-sufficiency, greater self-esteem, a healthy lifestyle and being fully included in society,” said Phyllis Gilmore, secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families.

State officials say their goal is to help 2,000 Kansans with disabilities find “integrated employment,” meaning competitive jobs rather than so-called “sheltered employment.”

Rocky Nichols, a former Democratic legislator from Topeka who now heads the Disability Rights Center of Kansas, welcomed the initiative but said he’s concerned that it won’t be enough to reverse several years of under-performance by the state’s vocational rehabilitation program.

“On the one hand, I don’t want to be too critical because it’s providing enhanced funding. But, man, this is a big challenge, and I think it’s going to take something more than a hopefully well-intentioned news release a month before the election to turn this thing around,” Nichols said.

Michael Donnelly, director of rehabilitation services at DCF, agreed that finding meaningful employment for people with disabilities is challenging.

“The (U.S.) Department of Labor reports that only 18 percent of Kansans with disabilities are involved at all in the workforce,” Donnelly said. “So that’s 80 percent who are not. That’s a lot of people.”

Even so, Donnelly said he believes the new effort will pay dividends because it’s being coordinated among five state agencies.

“We believe that we can put Kansas on a path to have the highest employment rates of people with disabilities,” he said.

Annual reports issued by the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts Boston show that Kansas has work to do in achieving that goal. The most recent report shows that the number of Kansans with disabilities placed in integrated employment declined from 79,141 in 2010 – the year Gov. Sam Brownback was elected – to 77,454 in 2012.

The numbers reveal other concerns. While the number of people with disabilities getting competitive, regular jobs has declined, the number having to settle for non-competitive, sheltered-workshop jobs has increased substantially.

In addition, more working-age Kansans with disabilities are living in poverty – increasing from 12.3 percent in 2010 to 13.3 percent in 2012. The poverty rate among all Kansans with disabilities increased from 23.3 percent in 2010 to 28.5 percent in 2012.

“Those (numbers) are huge red flags and huge warning signs to our state that we’ve got to do a lot more,” Nichols said.