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Building an Equitable Recovery: RespectAbility Advises Texas Workforce Commission on Solutions for Texans with Disabilities

Submitted testimony will help inform state wide efforts to rebuild the economy and get people with disabilities back to work.

Austin, TX, May 5 – This week, the Texas Workforce Commission met to discuss policies and priorities for moving the Lone Star State’s economy forward. In response, the national disability inclusion organization RespectAbiltiy weighed in with their perspective on how to advance new opportunities for workers with disabilities and close crucial gaps in Texas’ economy.

“When it was passed with broad, bipartisan support in 2014, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) invested unprecedented resources into efforts to get people with barriers to employment into the labor force,” said the Honorable Steve Bartlett, former Member of Congress, the former Mayor of Dallas and current Chairman of RespectAbility. “Now, after the pandemic that has reshaped our economy, it is time to implement policies that will drive a truly equitable recovery that helps people with disabilities and other marginalized communities get back to work.”

There are 1,658,935 working-age Texans living with some form of disability. In the economic expansion prior to COVID-19, fully 41.9 percent of them had jobs. However, because of COVID, more than 1 million workers with disabilities have lost their jobs nationwide. Now, as more Americans get vaccinated and more people get back to work, it is crucial that policy makers implement best practices.

“Our economy is at its best when all people, including people with disabilities, can earn an income and become independent, just like anyone else,” said Philip Kahn-Pauli, RespectAbility’s Policy and Practices Director. “Companies including Microsoft, JPMC, Coca-Cola and others have seen that talented people with disabilities can bring unique experiences, innovation and determination to organizations. It is time for more Texas-based companies to benefit from the skills and insights that workers with disabilities bring to the table.”

In their comments to the Texas Workforce Commission, RespectAbility’s team articulated a vision focused on closing gaps in outcomes, tracking metrics around disability and race, fighting stigmas that harm the employment aspirations of millions of Americans with disabilities, expanding Project SEARCH to help meet the needs of the caring economy and encouraging entrepreneurship.


RespectAbility’s full testimony is presented below:

To: Members and Chairman of the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC)
From: The Board of Directors, Senior Leaders and Staff Members, RespectAbility
Re: Public Comments on Workforce and WIOA Plans for Texas
Date: May 3, 2021

Dear Chairman Daniel and Executive Director Serna,

Thank you for your deep commitment to strengthening Texas, expanding opportunities for people who want to work and to building a better future.

We are writing about the more than 1.6 million working age people with disabilities in Texas. RespectAbility is a national nonprofit that fights stigmas and advances opportunities for people with disabilities. Our organization’s connections to Texas run deep. Our current chairman is the Honorable Steve Bartlett, former Congressman and former Mayor of Dallas who was a lead co-author of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Likewise, our Board Treasurer is Linda Burger, CEO of Jewish Family Service (JFS) in Houston since 2005 and a long-time resident of the Lone Star State. JFS is a leading provider of services to people with disabilities in their area. RespectAbility also has staff in Dallas.

As such, we wanted to take this opportunity to offer our comments on how to improve Texas policies and practices under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) as well as drive innovative approaches to apprenticeship through a lens of equity, intersectionality, and disability. Here are several proposals:

Track working-age disability data to drive decision making and disaggregate it by race

All too often, disability status is not a data point that guides the actions, investments and efforts of state or local workforce development boards. Even though WIOA designated people with barriers to employment as a priority population under the law, many states are using inadequate data that does not use focus efforts on the right metrics or best practices.

First, it is critical to recognize that the overwhelming majority, fully 70 percent of people with disabilities want to work and are striving to work. According to the 2020 Annual Disability Statistics Compendium, there are in total 1,658,935 working-age Texans with disabilities. In the economic expansion prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, 695,898 (or 41.9 percent) of those Texans have a job. However, because of the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, more than 1 million workers with disabilities nationwide have lost their jobs. As such, effectively and equitably rebuilding the economy is going to require investing in retraining, preparing and supporting those with barriers to work as they navigate a changed labor force. Further, given the tremendous diversity of both the wider nation and Texas specifically, it is critical to disaggregate data by race. The disability community intersects with other, underrepresented communities. As such, understanding the disparate impacts of race and disability needs to begin with good data driving the decision-making process.

Prioritize Closing Gaps in Labor Force Participation Rate Outcomes by Race and Disability

Workers of color with disabilities faced different outcomes in the labor force even before COVID-19. According to Census Bureau data from 2019, only 35.2 percent of working-age African Americans with disabilities had jobs, compared to 43.1 percent of working-age Latinx people with disabilities and 44.2 percent of working-age Asian Americans with disabilities. Likewise, Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) people with disabilities had significantly higher rates of poverty than other elements of the disability community. In 2019, 29.1 percent of Texas’s African Americans with disabilities lived in poverty, as did 26 percent of Hispanic/Latinx people with disabilities, 15.8 percent of Asian Americans with disabilities and 13.9 of white people with disabilities. Disparities and inequities have grown worse due to COVID-19.

Building the Caring Economy through Proven Models of Disability Employment

In looking for ways to both provide quality care to older Americans and to get more workers with disabilities into the labor force, policymakers should significantly expand the proven Project SEARCH model. Project SEARCH is a transformational school-to-work transition program for youth with intellectual and developmental disabilities that prepares them for good paying careers in hospitals, elder-care and the caring economy. The SEARCH model is a win-win-win for the host employer, the workers with disabilities, and the many older Americans helped by Project SEARCH trained workers. As a model it has already been replicated in 47 states, with dozens of satisfied employers, and hundreds of workers with disabilities earning minimum wage or more. This model is perfectly suited to the challenges of the present and could be expanded widely. There are already SEARCH sites actively placing young people with intellectual disabilities into the workforce in Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. Other states such as Wisconsin have rapidly expanded the number of Project SEARCH sites to meet the needs of transition age youth with disabilities and Texas could easily do the same in the months ahead.

Expand on the use of online, cohort-based apprenticeships for workers in the knowledge economy and the non-profit sector

The past year and the pandemic has made remote work an accepted reality for thousands of workers. This has been a “silver lining” of expanding and normalizing a common reasonable accommodation request long championed by workers with disabilities. Microsoft has dramatically expanded their accessibility features, including built-in speech to text technology which makes it possible for people with even the most limited mobility to use computers. This, along with free instant captioning on Zoom and other breakthroughs, has opened an unprecedented window for people with disabilities to contribute to the success of nonprofits, communities and beyond. Remote work also has great promise at expanding apprenticeship programs into more diverse sectors of the American economy, especially the knowledge economy. RespectAbility has retooled our own National Leadership Program from being a cohort-based, Washington D.C.-located internship program into an all-virtual, work-from-anywhere skills-based training program. Such approaches have major implications for efforts to train workers for good paying jobs in the knowledge economy and the non-profit sector.

Reduce Gaps in Disparate Impacts and Prioritize Equity

In order to rebuild from the COVID-19 pandemic and pave the way for an equitable economic recovery, it is critical to recognize the losses experienced by workers with disabilities over the past year. The nation’s overall labor force participation rate dropped to 61.4 percent in March 2021. At the same time, the data shows that workers with disabilities have seen an even bigger drop in their labor force participation. According to the University of New Hampshire’s Institute on Disability (UNH-IOD), the labor force participation rate for working-age people with disabilities is currently only 33.4 percent. As the economy rebuilds and people get vaccinated, it will be critical to close the gap in labor-force participation rates for working-aged people with disabilities and their non-disabled peers. 

Look at Strategies to Close the Gap in High School Graduation Rates

Likewise, working to close gaps in high school graduation rates also needs to be a key priority in the years ahead. For example, in 2019, Texas reported an overall high school graduation rate of 77.4 percent for students with disabilities. However, greater clarity is needed to address how the experiences of Black students with disabilities differ from Latinx, Asian and white students with disabilities, Overall, among the class of 2019, 93.7 percent of white students without disabilities graduated with a high school diploma, as did 86.2 percent of African American students without disabilities, 88.2 percent of Latinx students without disabilities, 96.4 percent of Asian-American students without disabilities. Even now, f.ar too many students with disabilities leave the school system without a diploma. Numerous studies have demonstrated that graduates of college will earn far more than college students who dropped out. By far, those earning the least are students without a high school diploma. A lack of a high school diploma is the negative ‘gift’ that keeps on hurting. As such, legislators have a moral imperative to invest in and expand services that will support the educational and employment success of more students with disabilities.

A 13th year to close the educational gap left by the pandemic

The pandemic has adversely impacted students with disabilities in the state of Texas. The loss of instructional time has made valuable employment transition skills nonexistent due the pandemic and shortened school year. High school seniors, especially high school seniors with disabilities have run out of time to complete their high school diploma and take advantage of school to work transitional services. In Texas, 588,317 students are covered under the IDEA: 27,759 of those students are high school senior students with disabilities that have missed out on high school completion with the goal to earn a diploma and vital year to gain skills needed for integration into the workforce. There is no make-up year unless one is created. An additional year of schooling or “13th year” is crucial to allow graduating students to succeed and enter the workforce. The pandemic should not deny transition services to this year’s seniors. As education is a civil right in the United States. If students fail to earn their high school diploma, then they will be denied the opportunity to go to college. Numerous studies have demonstrated graduates of college will earn far more than college students who drop out. By far those earning the least our students without a high school diploma. It is imperative that students with disabilities in Texas are given a thirteenth year of schooling to close the gap the pandemic has created and allow them to take advantage of the additional time to complete their high school diploma and take advantage of transitional services to employment for their lifelong success.

Focus on Encouraging Disability Owned Businesses and Learning from Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation

Iowa’s Vocational Rehabilitation agency has embraced the current crisis by adopting a range of new virtual strategies, approaches, and procedures for providing high quality workforce service even amid a virtual pandemic. Some of those innovative approaches, have major implications for the future of VR. Iowa quickly invested in the technological infrastructure to provide virtual services statewide, adopted a cohort-based model for fostering social connections among VR clients on Zoom and tested other emerging practices throughout 2020. Many other states could learn from the innovations and ideas tested by Iowa and Iowans with disabilities. Iowa VR has embraced entrepreneurship and self-employment as one of the key virtual services provided to the youth with disabilities that they serve. This is a topic that merits deeper attention as the nation looks for innovative solutions to the challenge of building back better.

Look at Expanding Access to Entrepreneurship as a Workforce Solution

In the pre-pandemic era, job seekers with disabilities were already turning to self-employment in far higher numbers than their non-disabled peers. For many, they did so because being your own boss and owning a small business served as an end-run around the barriers to employment that hold back far too many people with disabilities. In looking at the issue of self-employment and promoting entrepreneurship among people with disabilities, special attention should be directed to the equity issues of access to capital and systemic racism. Several disability organizations have been advocating for the inclusion of people with disabilities as a specific category under the rules of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) and to advance racial diversity in the entrepreneurship space. Now it the appropriate time to begin digging deep into that work as an equitable workforce strategy.

Leverage Community College Resources to Improve Employment Outcomes for Students with Disabilities

Community colleges are crucial pieces of the nation’s workforce development infrastructure and in many states, community colleges help direct the investment of WIOA dollars in programs or agencies. State and local Workforce Investment Boards can build sector partnerships that leverage community colleges and other education and training providers to develop career pathways that align workforce supply and demand. WIOA emphasizes the value of recognized postsecondary credentials, and the attention given to career pathways in the act provides a way for community colleges to contribute to the growth of skilled and credentialed workers in their local areas. Community colleges in California received state funding for Disabled Student Programs and Services (DSPS) to assist in providing support services and educational accommodations to students with disabilities so they can have full and equitable access to the community college experience. Part of the community college experience can include job training and readiness. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Act), as amended by WIOA emphasizes the provision of services to students and youth with disabilities to ensure they have opportunities to receive the training and other services necessary to achieve competitive integrated employment. It also expands the population of students with disabilities who may receive services and the kinds of services that the VR agencies may provide to youth and students with disabilities who are transitioning from school to postsecondary education and employment. Making the connection /partnership with Disables Student Programs across every state with WIOA Eligible Training Provider programs at community colleges creates a pipeline of trained /certified workers with disabilities ready for the local competitive integrated job market.

Nothing About Us Without Us

People most directly affected by issues such as education, jobs, prejudice, homelessness, criminal justice, poverty and other issues deserve to have their voices, insights and experiences utilized in finding and implementing solutions. People with disabilities are disproportionally impacted by each of these issues. As such, some workforce development boards in other states and jurisdictions have formally or informally adopted policies to create board space for people with disabilities or their proven allies. By leveraging such lived experience and subject matter expertise, the board can achieve even more with their existing resources. RespectAbility hopes in future that the Texas Workforce Commission will considering giving a seat at the table to a person with lived disability experience or a proven ally with expertise on disability employment. Likewise, we hope that the Commission will leverage the expertise and leaders from the Texas Governor’s Committee on People with Disabilities to advance their disability specific work. 

Implement Best Practices

Look to the collected best practices previously documented by critical organizations such the National Governors Association (NGA) Better Bottom Line initiative and the Council of State Governments (CSG): Work Matters A Framework for States on Workforce Development for People with Disabilities. Likewise, look at the 2018 study completed by Accenture and the recently released report from Mercer and Global Disability Inclusion.

As an organization that advocates on behalf of job seekers with disabilities and their families, we believe that collecting the best ideas, emerging practices and innovative policies is critical to ensuring that American with and without disabilities have equal access to good jobs. Without such ideas communities and policymakers cannot direct appropriate resources to the places that need them most, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. If you have any questions or would like to discuss these matters further, our team stands ready to help, however we can. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi
President and CEO, RespectAbility
JenniferM@RespectAbility.org
202-365-0787

Nelly Nieblas
Manager of Policy, Advocacy and Engagement, RespectAbility
nellyn@respectability.org
202-288-1588

Philip Kahn-Pauli
Policy and Practices Director, RespectAbility
philipp@respectability.org
202-525-8755

Meet the Author

Philip Pauli

Philip Kahn-Pauli is the Policy and Practices Director of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for people with disabilities. He works with state leaders to develop solutions for youth with disabilities, support job seekers with disabilities and open pathways into the workforce. To reach him, email philipp@respectability.org.

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