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Why Work Matters for People with Disabilities

Category: General HR

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Reprinted from - Dan O’Brien, Acting Associate Commissioner, Office of Employment Support Programs, Social Security Administration

The 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) makes me reflect on my 25 years of working, in one capacity or another, towards assisting people with disabilities obtain employment. I started my disability employment work with Clubhouses back in the mid-1980s.

My roots in the disability field are influenced by my time in return-to-work efforts for people with schizophrenia, and growing up with family members with significant disabilities.

Today, I manage Social Security’s Ticket to Work Program and would like to share a few thoughts about my beginnings and my path from Oklahoma to the Baltimore/Washington, D.C. area.

While working in the mental health field, I discovered that supporting people to work could facilitate and help sustain recovery. As the director of an employment program at a large, urban mental health center, I had unique opportunities to assist people every day. One woman’s story, while typical, stands out in my memory.

Beth (a pseudonym) would check into the center every day, and we wouldn’t see her again until she checked out at the end of the day. So one day, I looked all over for her and found her – hiding in the closet. From that day forward, I visited her in the closet and invited her to engage in the real work of running the Clubhouse. Slowly, Beth increased her activity and confidence level.

After several months, we got her a part-time job in the community where she thrived with the short-term help of a job coach. She later moved on to a regular full-time job. We didn’t hear from her for a year or so, but one day she entered the center, and we had a great visit. I took her to see the staff members that had helped her – Beth was looking good and strutting her stuff.

After she left, a staff person asked me who she was. I had to remind her about the woman I talked out of the closet. The staff person could not believe it was the same person! Beth had reclaimed herself! Being employed enabled her to completely transform her appearance, her energy level and her demeanor. She had literally come out of the closet and become an extraordinary example that recovery through work is possible.

I remain committed to employment opportunities for people with disabilities. The Ticket to Work Program is doing this in many ways. One approach that I believe is especially mission-critical is offering Work Incentives Seminars to Social Security beneficiaries with disabilities. These seminars, called WISE events, provide peer supports, encourage family advocates to participate and create a safe environment for informal discussions between beneficiaries with disabilities, benefits counselors and employment service providers. Years ago, we found this model helped by explaining the basics to those who were prepared to proceed in their transition to work.

Today, I am pleased that the Social Security Office of Employment Support Programs is providing more than 500 WISE events around the nation this year, along with Webinars and teleconferences, to expand awareness and help begin the process for individuals who want to start their path toward work, increased independence and self-sufficiency

All people with disabilities should be given the help they need to find work, whether they are Social Security disability beneficiaries or other Americans who seek to enhance their autonomy and purpose through employment. Today, with the celebrations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), we find more pathways and support for employment opportunities for people with disabilities. We all must do more to give people a chance to work, to ensure they are able to retain their employment and develop real and sustaining careers.

This reminds me of another person I met in Oklahoma many years ago. A young man had been shuffled through about 20 foster homes while growing up. He had schizophrenia and fetal alcohol syndrome. Due to his disabilities, he couldn’t follow more than two-step instructions. In spite of these limitations, we found a good job match for him, and he succeeded with short-term help from a job coach.

Months later, I visited him at his work site. I will never forget how he looked me in the eye with confidence as he shook my hand and said, “Thanks for helping me get this job. This is the first time in my life that I ever felt real.” He meant that work gave his life meaning, that people depended on him and he was an essential part of the work team - he felt important for the first time.

We need to enable millions more Americans with disabilities to succeed by helping them to choose and retain work. I believe that, like the people I’ve mentioned, every individual with a disability has the potential to be a work success story.

For More Information

To find out more about how you can get started, visit the Choose Work website at:

Dan O’Brien has worked in the supported employment and rehabilitation field for 25 years. He managed a large Employment Program at a mental health center; worked in the VR system first overseeing Community Rehabilitation and Supported Employment contracts and then was the Oklahoma VR Program Manager for Ticket to Work as well as all employment and job placement service contracts. Dan has worked for the Social Security Administration since July 2005 and currently serves as the Acting Deputy Associate Commissioner for the Office of Employment Support Programs.

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Growth in women's share of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) occupations declined to 27% in 2011from a high of 34% in 1990. While women make up nearly half of the workforce, they were 26% of the STEM workforce in 2011.

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