Positive Approaches Journal | 6-7

Positive Approaches Journal - Volume 2 Title

Volume 11 ► Issue 3 ► November 2022

Access, Empowerment, and Independence: Employment for All


Having a job is more than just getting a paycheck.  It is also about connecting to others, making friends, learning new skills, having structure in your life, and making a contribution to society. Having a job, earning an income, and paying taxes provide a wonderful feeling of independence; a feeling of pulling your weight. As one person with serious mental illness who is quoted in one of the articles of this Positive Approaches issue says, empowerment is defined this way: "It's a decent paycheck at the end of the week."

This issue of Positive Approaches focuses on the importance of employment for individuals with a disability – whether it is a serious mental illness, a developmental disability, intellectual disability, deafness, or something else. The issue discusses the programs that exist in Pennsylvania to help chip away at the high unemployment rate of these individuals. The national percentage of people with disabilities participating in our workforce is just 22.5 percent.

Officials in state government say that is unacceptable. That is why the Employment First Act was signed by Governor Tom Wolf in 2018, making competitive integrated employment the first consideration and preferred outcome for people with disabilities by law.

There are programs in Pennsylvania in support of that law that help individuals with disabilities to get and keep employment. One is the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR), in the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, which holds the sole responsibility for administering the state-federal Vocational Rehabilitation Program is one of the few available resources to combat the issue of low employment rates among the deaf population.

Another program is the Medical Assistance for Workers with Disabilities (MAWD) program in the Department of Human Services (DHS). The MAWD program supports individuals with disabilities by keeping them covered by Medical Assistance after they obtain employment. MAWD is more than just medical coverage; Medical Assistance acts as a doorway to a host of varied third-party agencies and services that provide wraparound supports to build up individuals.

Additionally, supported employment (SE) is the primary tool used to assist those with serious mental illness (SMI) to gain employment. And research has shown that the SE version to work most effectively for those with SMI is the Individual Placement and Support model.

It is important for individuals to not only get a job, but to keep that job and to feel like they are valued and respected for their contributions. For the sake of employees’ mental health and to create continuous quality improvement, organizations need to foster an environment of psychological safety. As described in one of our articles, psychological safety is “a climate where people feel safe enough to take interpersonal risks by speaking up, and sharing concerns, questions, or ideas.” Actions to establish such an environment, along with things like the Employment First Law, OVR, MAWD and SE, help to overcome barriers to competitive integrated employment for individuals with disabilities.

This issue will provide insight into how we can continue this important work.

David Knauss
Retired Human Services Analyst
Office of Long-Term Living