DeRodre Hill working at Mission Health through an Arc of North Carorlina internship.
De’Rodre Hill scans bar codes on storage bins at Mission Health materials management in Asheville, through an Arc of North Carolina training internship, which helps workers with disabilities find integrated jobs with competitive pay. Photo courtesy of Arc of North Carolina

For those living with disabilities in North Carolina, finding fulfilling employment with competitive wages can be challenging. About 70 percent of working-age people living with disabilities are unemployed, according to a recent report from Disability Rights NC.

A recent executive order from Gov. Roy Cooper hopes to change that.

Cooper has directed state government agencies to create strategies to hire people with disabilities, embracing the Employment First national initiative on employment for Americans with disabilities, which dates to 2011.

“Moving Into the Economic Mainstream,” a recent report from the nonprofit group Disability Rights NC, suggests the state hasn’t been doing enough to inform people about opportunities.

“Parents, advocates and people with disabilities struggle to make informed choices because they are either not aware of the full array of services available to them or are misinformed about the services,” the report says.

Counseling limits

Vocational Rehabilitation Services, a division within the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, provides job counseling and placement for people with disabilities.

According to Chris Hodgson, a lawyer for Disability Rights NC, subminimum wage employment is often the only choice for job training given by a Vocational Rehabilitation job counselor.

Since 2011, Disability Rights NC has monitored sheltered workshops employing some 5,000 people. Sheltered workshops are facilities that employ workers with disabilities in segregated environments, often paying subminimum wages.

For instance, according to Hodgson, the average pay for workers at one sheltered workshop was about $1.20 an hour, with wages for some workers as low as 7 cents an hour. Sheltered workshops contract with hundreds of businesses, such as Perdue Farms and suppliers of military goods.

In the four years he has been monitoring these workshops, Hodgson said, he has helped people transition out of workshops into programs that better train people for jobs paying at least minimum wage and that are integrated within the community.

“Integration means being a full member of the economy, as a taxpayer and a consumer, and job training should produce that important goal,” Hodgson said.

Leegracea Lewis, 50, suffered a stroke in 2002 in Florida. When she moved to Charlotte and was ready to reenter the workforce, she knew from her time spent working for the state of Florida to contact Vocational Rehabilitation Services.

But she found this state agency was very different.

“You always have to have an advocate, or you are lost,” Lewis said. “They didn’t want to hear anything I had to say.”

From her work experience in an office setting, Lewis knew a similar kind of job would be best for her. But she was placed in a sheltered workshop training program stocking shelves. She experiences difficulty walking and standing due to her stroke, and stocking shelves was physically strenuous for her.

After about a year with no assistance from her VR job counselor, she contacted Hodgson at Disability Rights NC. He helped place her in Community Partnerships, where she has been working on cognitive development and job training since 2013. She gives presentations on a current event every Wednesday and is currently working on a cover letter for a job. “It opened up a lot of doors,” said Lewis.

Changes ahead?

The report advocates phasing out the sheltered workshops that lock people with disabilities into subminimum wage work.

A recent agreement is laying out the steps for the state to phase out the training program that relies on sheltered workshops by October 2021.

This major reform and Cooper’s Employment First executive order represent a potential shift from a culture of segregation to one that seeks to integrate people with disabilities into the community.

Chris Egan entered the position of senior director for employment services at Vocational Rehabilitation six months ago with two big priorities, he said.

One was to change the internal complaint reporting and client advocacy structure for Vocational Rehabilitation. Until this spring, this service was conducted within the same department.

Egan’s other priority involves implementing the governor’s executive order.

“Historically, the mindset hasn’t always been competitive” pay for disabled workers, Eagan said.

For decades, these workshops were some of the only options for people with significant disabilities to work, under Section 14c of the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act.

The subminimum wage pay reflected the perceived difference in production by people with disabilities, according to the federal legislation.

But other providers of job training that are integrated into a community setting or aim to transition the individual into general employment exist.

Support organizations for integrated employment

Egan’s other priority was for North Carolina to become an Employment First state. The Employment First campaign proposes employment in the general workforce as the focus of federal funding for working-age people with disabilities.

“We want to keep an array of choices for people while building more opportunity in competitive, integrative employment,” Egan said.

The Arc of North Carolina, an advocacy group for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, supports this initiative through integrated programs training people with disabilities for jobs in the community.

One of these programs, Project SEARCH Asheville, is at the Mission Health campus near downtown Asheville.

The job training program consists of three internships in different departments in the hospital and runs from August through May. The summer following the year of training, job counselors help participants find jobs in the community, sometimes at the Mission Hospital.

Although the program is not currently running at its full capacity of 12 individuals, in the four years that this program has been running, 94 percent of participants have been placed in competitive employment, according to Regional Director Duncan Reid.

“While only a few people are going through the program, the program is impacting the community in a bigger way,” Reid said.

The work Reid and others have done through Project SEARCH Asheville in the business community has led to employers reaching out directly because they want to hire someone with a disability to promote diversity.

The transition from job training in sheltered workshops into job training that is integrated into the community will require more programs like Project SEARCH Asheville, according to Egan.

“The more people are fully part of the community, the more we break down stereotypes, and people are seen as unique individuals,” he said.

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Eliza Laubach is a Carolina Public Press contributing writer, who is based in Asheville. Email to contact her.

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