For people with a disability, poverty rates are high and employment rates low. Can workforce development help? - Generocity Philly

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Feb. 3, 2021 11:00 am

For people with a disability, poverty rates are high and employment rates low. Can workforce development help?

Private nonprofits like the Sierra Group and JEVS run most of the city-wide disability workforce programs. But should the City of Philadelphia look to New York City's model to expand its own disability workforce development efforts?

Marchers walking down Center City during the 2019 Disability Pride Parade that Disability Pride Philadelphia, Inc. hosts.

(Courtesy of Disability Pride Philadelphia, Inc.)

Janet Fiore took her younger cousins to the candy store. 17-year-old Fiore pulled on the family wagon through the neighborhood until she reached the storefront door. Fiore then needed help getting her 5-year-old cousin up the steps.

Her cousin had a swollen tumor that grew one of her legs to an adult’s size. She couldn’t walk on her own. A woman walked out of the door, and Fiore asked her for assistance.

Instead of helping, the woman held her hands to her face and ran away. Fiore’s cousin tapped her and said, “It’s okay, some people don’t understand.” For Fiore, it wasn’t okay that people didn’t understand people with a disability.

Janet Fiore during a Sierra Group Disability Recruiter training. (Courtesy photo)

Influenced by the difficulties her family members and friends with disabilities had finding work, Fiore wanted to improve disability workforce development all over Pennsylvania. In 1992, she started the Sierra Group to provide worksite accommodation training to businesses.

Now, the Workplace Technology Foundation nonprofit, operating as the Sierra Group Foundation, trains and matches Philadelphians with a disability for jobs that they want to have.

The lack of inclusion of people with disabilities into the mainstream working force is a national problem.

Philadelphia has the largest disability population of any major city in the country.

Philadelphia also has room to grow in improving disability workforce development. The city has the largest disability population of any major city in the country. About one eighth, or around 246,000 people, live with a disability. The Census groups disabilities into four categories: hearing, vision, cognitive, and ambulatory.

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Philadelphia also has the highest percentage of people with an ambulatory or cognitive disability. The glossary states that someone with a cognitive disability has “difficulty remembering, concentrating, or making decisions” because of a “physical, mental, or emotional problem.” An ambulatory disability is “having difficulty walking or climbing stairs.”

In 2017, Mayor Jim Kenney created the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities (MOPD). The MOPD recently published an Americans with Disabilities (ADA) Transition Plan for the city, including self-evaluations of ADA compliance across city government agencies. The plan does not include in its scope changes to disability workforce development.

Koert Wehberg, the former executive director of the MOPD, left his role in December.

Lauren Cox, the city’s spokesperson, says that one of the new director’s goals will be increasing opportunities for people with disabilities to work in City government.

“While this initiative is not yet underway, the MOPD and City HR staff already work with candidates who have documented disabilities to provide accommodations during our assessment process,” Cox said.

The City also passed regulations to provide better accommodations for city employees with ADA-qualifying disabilities. These measures cover people with disabilities who can find employment but do not non-City employee workers with disabilities.

The funding for current disability workforce programs don’t come from the city government directly. That sort of development is not on the City government’s radar, said Julia Blackwell, director of operations for the JEVS Human Services hireAbility program.

Blackwell, who is also a member of the MOPD’s Commission on Disabilities and chairs the employment committee, added, “You have to have someone with lived experience at the table.”

Private nonprofits like the Sierra Group and JEVS run most of the city-wide disability workforce programs.

Born with a rare genetic disorder known as Soto Syndrome, Stephen J. began working with JEVS’ hireAbility program, which offers supports to assist individuals living with a disability or chronic disease by preparing them for competitive employment and community integration. Stephen found employment with Shore Medical Center, which has created a work environment where he can thrive. (Courtesy photo)

The City’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS) offers employment services for people with intellectual and cognitive disabilities. The funding for the program comes from the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare (DPW).

Other programs like PA CareerLink exist through the Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR). Having disability workforce development options on both the state and city-scale are essential, but according to Blackwell, “the right-hand doesn’t always talk with the left.”

In Philadelphia, 22% of those in poverty are people with a disability.

Nationally, only a one third of working-age people with a disability are employed — and less than a quarter work a fulltime job. In Philadelphia, 22% of those in poverty are people with a disability. The rate is 26% across the country.

Shirley Moy, executive director of Temple University’s North Philadelphia Lenfest Workforce Initiative, says that people with disabilities need universal access to resources that regular job applicants need to apply.

“We realize that in terms of employment opportunities, the number one certification required is a driver’s license,” Moy said. “How do you communicate with someone that is deaf? Test centers don’t allow an [interpreter] in the car. So those things create barriers for those with a hearing disability”.

Fiore says that the “digital divide” strikes out job applicants who are both in poverty and have a disability. “The digital divide might mean the home where you live does not have a high-speed internet connection or a computer at home,” Fiore said. “You might have access on your phone, but it is often impossible to complete all aspects of an online job application.”

Studies show that education is a large factor in obtaining financial security. For those with disabilities, schools and training programs are not always accessible. Vicki Landers, executive director of Disability Pride Philadelphia, Inc., says that students with disabilities have more costs to cover beyond tuition.

“My organization is starting a scholarship for disabled students,” Landers said. “Disabled people have extra bills like [medication].”

Moy said that quality education for people with disabilities starts early. The North Philadelphia Lenfest Workforce Initiative partners with Temple University’s Institute on Disabilities on a program that provides young adults with disabilities job training and an internship.

Having both poverty and education issues addressed as part of disability workforce development creates higher qualifying applicants, but these programs’ implementation starts at the top — with policy.

Julia Barol, a part-time employment manager at Temple University’s Institute on Disabilities, believes that having more City government involvement would streamline the programs’ success.

“We’ve run into difficulties with labor unions,” Barol said. “If we’re supporting someone with an intellectual disability, they might not be able to pass certain tests that are used as a gateway to the job.”

Blackwell says that legislation traction in the state and city is slow, but there is some movement. “75 percent of accommodations are free,” Blackwell said. “It takes a coordinated effort.”

Philadelphia has a neighboring city’s model to create a city government-controlled disability workforce development program.

In New York City, there is also a Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities. One of the Office’s major programs is NYC: ATWORK, a city government program that recruits and connects New Yorkers with disabilities to jobs and internships both in the public and private sectors.

Martha Jackson, assistant commissioner for the New York City Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities  — who co-founded the program — believes that the first step is asking businesses what their challenges are in hiring people with disabilities.

“We started with no money,” Jackson said. “We started with focus groups of businesses in all sectors. They didn’t have dedicated resources to go after people with disabilities, and we needed to address those issues.”

The program is funded both by the city and private organizations like the Kessler Foundation. Around 12% of New Yorkers live with a disability. The program is self-driven, and job seekers are paired with program-dedicated city staff and resources to find work.

The office worked for two years to approve a New York City 55-a program into local law. The 55-a program allows an individual with a disability to work in the city government without a civil service exam. Maricela Brea, workforce and inter-government relations director for NYC: ATWORK, says that the office became a recruitment arm for city government and local businesses.

“We want to empower people to be responsible to sell themselves and their skills,” Brea said. “You have the right to ask.”

Mia Gudiel-Joshi, the New York Foundling‘s education and employment services coordinator, says that NYC: ATWORK’s job board is good support for their job seekers with disabilities.

“The climate of workforce development for people with disabilities in New York City is very collaborative,” Gudiel-Joshi said. “But it’s also still emerging.”

Disability unemployment rates in New York City dropped between 2015 and 2017.

Disability unemployment rates in New York City dropped between 2015 and 2017, but Jackson says that the office won’t stop. “We want to be a part of the solution,” Jackson said.

Providing reasonable accommodations is a step in the right direction, but not enough.

Disability workforce development has to move away from the 8 Fs of disability employment: food, flowers, folding, fetching, filing, friendly, festive, and filth to grow. People with disabilities deserve the right to a meaningful work experience.

According to Blackwell, the first step is for the City to hire a disability policy expert and create an additional disabilities council with constituents with disabilities.

The models of building a more equitable Philadelphia exist. The city government has to seek them.


Generocity is one of 22 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice.

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