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WILMINGTON, Del. — Governors should do a better job of increasing job opportunities for people with disabilities, including working directly with businesses and adding the issue to a state's overall economic development strategies, Delaware's governor said in a report released Friday at the National Governor's Association meeting in Milwaukee.
Training programs, job coaching and skills assessments should be part of what states offer businesses. And states should be model employers themselves, hiring people with disabilities whenever possible, Gov. Jack Markell said.
"One key action is to set a state goal for hiring people with disabilities through an executive order and hold agencies accountable for achieving that goal," Markell's report said.
Hiring workers with disabilities is the first option by law at Delaware agencies that provide services to people with disabilities, according to state legislation that Markell, a Democrat, signed last year. Delaware also intends to launch a website this fall that will direct hiring managers to resources related to hiring workers with disabilities, said Rita Landgraf, health and social services secretary.
The governor's association report is the result of a yearlong initiative led by Markell, who has served as chairman of the group for the past year. He'll hand over the chairmanship Sunday to Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican.
Markell said he hopes his report will encourage other governors to increase job prospects for people with disabilities, who participate in the labor force at a far lower rate and are unemployed at a far higher rate than the general population. Markell's report says 1 in 5 Americans with disabilities, about 54 million people, has a job or is seeking work, compared to nearly 70% of Americans who do not have a disability.
"We want to spread the word more effectively than we have in the past about why employing people with disabilities is not about charity, but it's about what's in the business' best interest," Markell said.
Some large employers here already have made workers with disabilities a major component of their local business models. With the help of workforce development organization Specialisterne, executives at technology firm Computer Aid announced plans earlier this year to hire 50 employees with autism.
And just last month, Bank of America announced it will provide grants worth $875,000 to Delaware organizations, some of which will support workforce development for people with disabilities.
"Connecting them with the training, with the job opportunities hopefully puts them in position to gain employment and allows them to gain financial independence," said Chip Rossi, the bank's market president for Delaware. "By doing that, we're helping improve their financial lives, helping our communities and making Delaware a better place for everyone."
The bank employs about 350 people with disabilities throughout the country, and more than half work in Delaware, Rossi said. Workers with disabilities perform a variety of roles in shipping, receiving, fulfillment and preparing documents to be sent to customers.
"From a business standpoint, our experience with employing people with disabilities has been outstanding," he said. "You present people with an opportunity to have meaningful employment and be part of a team. You're going to get more productivity, improved retention, improved attendance and a lot of satisfaction from employees."
Markell's report points to best practices in other states doing work to boost employment opportunities:
• Washington state collects data monthly on jobs held by residents with disabilities and tracks the data in a statewide database.
• Virginia has partnered with universities to study the benefits of hiring workers with disabilities.
• And in Maryland, the state Department of Disabilities is a cabinet-level agency that reports to the governor's office and has a seat at the table during economic development discussions. Catherine Raggio, secretary of the department, said that helps ensure workers with disabilities are included in every high-level policy discussion on jobs and the economy.
"Economic empowerment is the ultimate empowerment for people with disabilities," Raggio said. "And we need more of them in the workforce."
During the year Markell was working on the initiative, he had round table discussions here and in Pittsburgh. Staff drafting the report had more than 60 one-on-one meetings with experts. Markell said he hopes the report is put to good use.
"My hope and my expectation is that it will prompt action in states across the country to actually advance the ball on this issue," he said.