New York’s program for workers with disabilities works but it can and must be strengthened

By Maureen O’Brien and Michael Seereiter | January 10, 2022

Like many of you, we can get a little geeky when it comes to numbers. Collect them, analyze them, look for trends, see what story they tell and lessons they provide for Albany’s decision makers.

But like the visible part of an iceberg, they’re only a piece of the story. The full picture is much deeper.

Take last month’s Rockefeller Institute report titled “The Role of Disability Service Providers in the New York State Economy.” The report examined both the economic impacts of the Preferred Source program, a model for ensuring people with disabilities have employment opportunities, and the larger non-profit service delivery system for New Yorkers with disabilities supported through the State Office for People With Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD).  You can see the report here.

The numbers are impressive:

  • 427 of New York’s nonprofit disability service providers generated $14.3 billion in economic output.
  • New York State Industries for the Disabled, that administers the Preferred Source program, alone generated $407.3 million in economic impact.
  • Benefits are felt in every corner of the state.

Let’s consider the Rockefeller Institute’s examination of the Preferred Source Program first. In addition to the $407.3 million mentioned above, Rockefeller also recommends ways Gov. Hochul and the Legislature can strengthen the Preferred Source Program so it can support more people and turbo-charge its economic benefits for the state while remaining under the watchful eye of regulators and policy makers. More on that later.

This report puts hard numbers to what we’ve been saying for years — that when people with disabilities have jobs, our entire state benefits. The report tells a numbers story, but behind every figure is a life that’s been made better and by extension, a family and a community.

Behind every number is someone with autism or Down syndrome or cerebral palsy, or had a traumatic brain injury and, because of their job, can earn a living, live a fuller life and contribute to our communities as well as New York’s tax base.

Every person is a human success story. Mike Lizzi is a perfect illustration. He suffered a severe brain injury as a toddler. Now, after years of rehab and as he says, re-learning to walk and talk, he’s nearing three decades of increasingly responsible work at Albany’s Center for Disability Services. You can read more about Mike here.

There are countless people like Mike Lizzi all over New York. Gov. Hochul and the Legislature can ensure there are more by adopting Rockefeller’s recommendations, including:

  • Simplify the process for approving Preferred Source contracts to make it closer to what’s done with other diversity and inclusion contracting initiatives. Right now, the OGS review threshold is $50,000 – a level set 18 years ago. Rockefeller recommended it be raised to $250,000.
  • Modernize the rules and expand opportunities for Preferred Source contractors by lowering the percentage of jobs on a given project that must be done by people with disabilities – from 75 percent to 50 percent. This would recognize the fact that employment now takes place in community-based settings in which persons with disabilities work more side by side with people without disabilities.

In its examination of the larger, non-profit system of supports for New Yorkers with disabilities, Rockefeller rightly recognizes that these disability services organizations rely almost exclusively on government funding – yet they contribute immensely to New York’s economy and often are among the largest employers in their regions.  The report identifies $6.7 billion in OPWDD-related revenue that generated a total of $14.3 billion in economic activity in 2019. That return on investment includes $2.5 billion in output for their suppliers and $5.1 billion related to spending by their 153,000 employees.  And from all this investment, the non-profit providers contributed $2.2 billion in federal and state tax revenue.

The Rockefeller report provides compelling data that supports what we in the non-profit disability service provider sector have known for a long time. Namely, that investments in disability services not only make huge impacts in the quality of life of New Yorkers with disabilities, but also offer the State of New York an outstanding return on those investments.

We are thrilled with Gov. Hochul’s State of the State message, in which she  clearly articulated that issues important to New Yorkers with disabilities are a priority for her administration. The Governor signaled not only her desire to make New York a model for the employment of individuals with disabilities, but she committed to significant increases in funding for the service delivery sector, especially the dedicated professionals who have demonstrated extraordinary commitment to individuals with disabilities they have supported throughout the pandemic.

Her proposals – and her very public recognition of the value that people with disabilities bring to New York’s economy and have as members of our communities across this state – are incredibly welcome.

And in the Senate and Assembly, we are seeing unprecedented levels of focus and commitment on disabilities issues, along with pushes for legislation that will help people with disabilities from Montauk to Buffalo.

Put it all together and we have the makings of a set of accomplishments that can propel New York to its rightful place as the national leader in how it supports people with disabilities.

Maureen O’Brien is President and CEO of New York State Industries for the Disabled. Michael Seereiter is President and CEO of the New York Alliance for Inclusion and Innovation.