Like most states, the backbone of Alabama is countless individual women and men who wake up and go to work on most days. Yet, like many other states, too few Alabamians with disabilities have this same opportunity to work and earn a living making a meaningful contribution to the economy.
Even as we experience the Great Resignation that is shrinking the American workforce, the fact remains that very few Alabamians with disabilities receive the supports they need to work in our mainstream economy. Alabama’s August 2021 unemployment rate was only 3.1%, but this figure leaves out individuals with disabilities who wish to join the workforce and contribute to their communities, yet do not have the opportunity to pursue their dream of a job. Only about 1 in 4 people with any type of disability are employed in the state of Alabama, a number even lower than the national average of employed individuals with disabilities.
Like other states, Alabama has an economic interest in helping individuals with disabilities seek and gain work because, with work, those individuals can secure their own livelihoods and propel the economic status of the state. But what does it take to make the change happen?
As the Executive Director for the protection and advocacy program for Alabama and a national Employment First consultant, we are united in supporting Alabama’s work with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to introduce the state’s new Community Waiver Program (CWP).
It is fitting that the program launched last month, as we celebrated National Disability Employment Awareness Month. Through the CWP, state and federal resources will focus on promoting competitive employment and community inclusion for people with disabilities by providing supports that keep families together and enable individuals with developmental disabilities to explore, seek, and gain jobs in the mainstream workforce.
The CWP design offers more than a dozen different employment services to meet every person where they are and assist them to move forward with competitive employment. Among the services offered are work incentives counseling, financial literacy, employment exploration, customized employment services, job coaching, co-worker supports, and career advancement. In addition, the CWP offers incentives for individuals to work, including access to increased transportation services, and services that support community inclusion when people are not working. A close relationship between the Alabama Division of Developmental Disabilities and the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services ensures braiding of services and funding to support competitive employment is done consistent with federal requirements.
The CWP design also includes priority access to enrollment in the program for individuals with developmental disabilities that want competitive employment. Shattering assumptions that people don’t want to work, 49% of individuals on the waiting list for home and community-based services (HCBS) who’ve indicated interest in enrolling in the CWP also state they want supports to find and keep competitive employment. The availability of the employment exploration service is expected to further increase program participants who have a goal to work in competitive employment.
For decades, Alabama’s traditional HCBS waiver system for individuals with developmental disabilities has operated in crisis mode. The new CWP will support individuals and their families to avoid crisis, maintain stability in their home communities, expand relationships, and make smooth transitions from school to the workplace while reducing the state’s waitlist for needed supports.
Alabama’s new Community Waiver Program represents a giant leap forward for providing effective, meaningful, and timely supports so individuals with disabilities can live, work, and be valued participants in their communities of choice. By ensuring that people with disabilities have full access to employment and community involvement during the national recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, we see more fully the promise that America’s recovery is indeed “Powered by Inclusion.”
James Tucker is the Director of the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program.
Lisa Mills is the owner of Moving to a Different Drum, a consulting group specializing in disability policy and services.