The United Way’s 21 and Able campaign kicked off in early 2012 with the goal of streamlining the service system for people with disabilities and their families.
A person living with disabilities is eligible for a wide range of supportive services until they turn 21. When they enter adulthood, available services can be hard to secure, and unemployment for people with disabilities remains an issue, despite laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“Since ADA passed in the early 1980s, two-thirds of all people with disabilities were unemployed, and that number is still the same today,” said Mary Hartley, program manager for 21 and Able. “This is devastating; it just shouldn’t be at that place.”
In the first two years of 21 and Able, the effort has worked on public policy and has continued to work with local, state and national partners on potential changes. In 2013, a new pilot program was launched that seeks to help people with disabilities better fit into companies. Giant Eagle, The United Way, Allegheny County and Blind & Vision Rehabilitation Services have partnered on the Career Transition Liaison Project.
“The career transition liaison is embedded into the company,” said Mary Esther Van Shura with Allegheny County. “The reason for doing that is frequently when individuals are in corporations or in any business it’s not just knowing the technical aspects of the job, but also the culture.”
The career liaison will reach out to various school districts and will work with employed individuals to ensure their success in the company. Since the project’s start in August five young people with disabilities have been hired by Giant Eagle in positions such as meat wrapper, front end clerk, bakery clerk and produce clerk. Giant Eagle is in the process of screening 14 additional students from 11 area schools. The idea came about from the embedded journalist model.
“We have to make opportunities for everyone to get job training and employment,” said Van Shura. “Taking that idea, we then thought to see how we could replicate it in corporations for people with disabilities.”
Van Shura said going forward the hope is to embed more career liaisons in more companies in the region. 21 and Able’s Hartley said these efforts are important when people with disabilities are young.
“Youth who are employed before they leave high school are 2.5 times more likely to work for the rest of their lives,” said Hartley, “but youth can’t get those experiences. You and I, who had our summer jobs, worked at the café or the pool in the summertime, might have been able to start that job with just a little support but some youth might need more.”
The Career Liaisons Program teaches kids not only how to work, but how to get a job and how to interact within organizations. While that program is ongoing, 21 and Able continues to work to build a checklist and roadmap for families of kids with disabilities, and provides resources for families seeking information.