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Disability Rights Wisconsin Co-Authors Editorial Supporting Integrated Employment

Dan Idzikowski, Kevin Fech and Jason Endres: Change in federal rules would help workers with disabilities 2013-10-08
• By Dan Idzikowski, Kevin Fech and Jason Endres, posted in the LaCrosse Tribune.

We live in an era of accountability.  It’s rare to see a dollar spent by government or private business without an eye toward outcome.

Few would argue this is a bad trend; however, an article in Thursday’s Tribune, “Riverfront CEO: People with disabilities would lose jobs under federal plan,” which describes how a rule will limit the use of federal dollars in employment facilities that segregate people with disabilities misses this good news.

In reality, the intent of the new federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services rule is to improve outcomes for people with disabilities and help states manage their scarce Medicaid funding.

Anyone watching Wisconsin’s state budget process during the past few years knows getting a handle on Medicaid spending is important for our state’s economy. The question always has been how we do that without harming individuals.

For Jordan Mihalovic of Onalaska, the answer is simple. Like many people with disabilities, Mihalovic is an integrated employment success story.

Mihalovic is 19 and has autism. While his parents say he will never live completely independently, they have high expectations for his future.He grew up with unique interests — particularly wanting to care for animals. Since graduating from high school, he is living his dream of working at a pet day care, where he earns $7.50 an hour.

More importantly, Mihalovic volunteers at church, is involved in his community and has a full life. His parents were told that the Riverfront facility was an employment option for their son, but as Mihalovic’s mother says, “All I knew was that Riverfront was a place for “severely disabled people to make a little money, and for us, that really didn’t amount to a hill of beans.”

In contrast to Mihalovic’s story, most people with disabilities working in segregated facilities earn less than minimum wage. More than half earn less than $2 per hour, while those in integrated employment average more than $8.

The proposed change in federal policy is a step forward for Wisconsin in many ways. How could anyone argue against, as the article suggests, a focus on allowing people with disabilities to work alongside others out in the community?

Yet the debate to support segregation of people with disabilities continues in our state, as taxpayer dollars continue to be sucked into an old model that does not yield results and is no longer what many young people and their families want.

There is a growing recognition that when public money is spent with a focus on increasing the competitive employment and independence of people with disabilities, people live up to these expectations. They reduce their reliance on public benefits.

Other counties and states that have adopted policies to increase competitive, integrated employment — the employment settings promoted in the new federal rule — show us what is possible for our whole state and the lives of people with disabilities.

In one county, 83 percent of working-age people with the most significant disabilities have competitive wage jobs in the community vs. 20 percent statewide. The annual earnings of these individuals exceeds $3.5 million.

When employment policies have changed, providers have not folded, but thrive under a variety of business models.

From a taxpayer’s perspective, CMS is right to put a future focus for Medicaid funding on integrated employment.

Unfortunately, without state or federal changes to policy, providers in many counties have been slow to change. Often our young people leaving high school are offered services only in segregated settings at sub-minimum wage and are never truly given the opportunity, like their peers without disabilities, to explore a job that is a better match for their skills and interests.

As disability advocates, we know many people — even those with the most significant disabilities — working in the community in fields such as child care or manufacturing or running their own businesses. They have true choice.

Wisconsin can do better for taxpayers and for people with disabilities. As Wisconsin lags behind other states in its integrated employment rate, we see room for improvement. A federal policy that calls for improvement should be welcomed.

Dan Idzikowski is executive director of Disability Rights Wisconsin, Kevin Fech is chairman of the Wisconsin Board for People with Developmental Disabilities, and Jason Endres is president of People First Wisconsin