Jobs for persons with disabilities is central to New York’s recovery, inclusiveness, and justice

By Maureen O’Brien | October 19, 2021

Perhaps no greater challenge lies before Gov. Hochul and the Legislature than helping guide New York State to a strong and sustainable recovery after the ravages of COVID.

That means not only economic recovery, but a just and inclusive recovery that helps improve New York’s social fabric, strengthen communities and maximize opportunity for all. We can be prosperous but also, at the same time, we must do good.

As CEO of the New York State Industries for the Disabled (NYSID), my particular focus is on helping create meaningful jobs for people with disabilities.

An important step in the effort is occurring today with a hearing in the Assembly on employment opportunities for people with disabilities. I will be testifying about how to remove barriers to employment for people with disabilities as well as strengthen existing initiatives.

The barriers are significant. If you are a disabled New Yorker, you are two and a half times more likely to live in poverty or be the victim of violent crime, and three times more likely to be homeless than a New Yorker without a disability. And currently the unemployment rate for New Yorkers with disabilities is 67 percent.

Additionally, the intellectual/developmental disabilities community and the non-profit system created to support it have been ravaged by COVID. Residential and day programs have been shuttered. The sector’s work force crisis has gotten more severe.

NYSID exists to advance employment and other opportunities for individuals with disabilities. We administer contracts through the Preferred Source Program (PSP), which says that whenever possible, state and local governments are to purchase services or commodities so that persons with disabilities can perform the work.

Created in 1975 as part of the reforms adopted in the aftermath of the Willowbrook scandal, NYSID strongly believes that the PSP should be strengthened even further to help create more meaningful jobs for those with disabilities.

How can this be accomplished?

First, follow the law.  Too many state and local government agencies either don’t understand the PSP or choose not to participate in it, in violation of the state finance law.

Second, create a roundtable of experts that can recommend changes to the existing programs to allow for more rapid growth, including unraveling bureaucracy to be more efficient and effective.

Third, and I think most importantly – we must do a better job at prioritizing individuals with disabilities.  We continually make decisions where individuals with disabilities are an afterthought, and this was never clearer than during the pandemic. For example:

  • In March of last year, schools and day programs shut down and individuals with disabilities were sent home to receive support in a remote environment that was often impossible for both the individuals and their families.
  • In April, when PPE and testing was prioritized for hospitals and nursing homes, disability service providers did not make the cut because they were not considered “health care.” Disability Service Providers came together as a community to fight for their staff to be recognized as essential workers and finally got that recognition but not before many lives of staff and program participants were lost to the virus.
  • In July of last year, for the first time in NYSID’s 45-year history, the New York State Division of Budget canceled a PSP contract that had been approved by two state agencies. Twenty individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities were displaced, and 30 more lost their opportunity to be hired. We’ve asked Governor Hochul to reverse this decision and restore those jobs.

NYSID is committed to continuing to work with legislators and the Governor to remove obstacles and lower the boundaries so that the focus is rightly on one’s abilities and the supports needed to succeed.

Those without employment opportunities are more likely to live in poverty.  It is a very simple equation.  Policies and programs like Preferred Source contracting through NYSID can sustainably improve the quality of life for an individual with a disability by focusing on employment opportunities.

Maureen O’Brien is President/CEO of New York State Industries for the Disabled, which has 140member agencies and corporate partners. NYSID has helped create more than 5,000 jobs annually for people with disabilities generating $370 million in annual economic impact for New York State.