On Wednesday, January 16, about 60 people with disabilities and Illinois service providers met David Hanson, the new Director of Illinois’ Division of Rehabilitation Services (DRS), at a “Meet and Greet” organized by DRS. Hosted by the Division of Rehabilitation Services at Access Living, the reception gave people the opportunity to meet Hanson, learn about his background and current goals, and it gave Director Hanson the chance to hear from the community. Hanson comes to DRS after serving various terms as Commissioner for the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, as Commissioner for the Mayor’s Office for Workforce Development, and after working with the City Colleges of Chicago. In his new position with DRS, Hanson will lead programs designed to empower people with disabilities to fully participate in their communities through employment, education, and independent living.
New DRS Director Dave Hansen, left, with Susan Aarup of DAWWN.
According to Rene D. Luna, Access Living’s Employment Community Organizer, Hanson “appears committed to improving VR services.” For many in the disability community, change means improving employment outcomes. Within DRS, vocational rehabilitation services are designed to prepare people with disabilities for employment. As a community, people with disabilities suffer the highest unemployment rate of any marginalized community. Historically, when working with DRS, some people with disabilities have encountered obstacles just accessing services, let alone finding employment. One obstacle has been the indiscriminate use of IQ Tests of people with disabilities applying for DRS Services. As a result of the IQ Tests, some people have been steered away from employment services offered by DRS. Disability advocates argue that IQ Tests are unnecessary and that they are culturally-biased and discriminatory against people with learning disabilities and others. Prior to Hanson’s appointment with DRS, Disabled Americans Want Work Now (DAWWN), an advocacy group working to increase employment options, organized a campaign to eliminate IQ Testing within VR services. The campaign led to a moratorium on IQ Testing, which is still in effect.
With DRS going through a leadership transition, Luna hopes that the state will shift its emphasis from segregated employment to career development and real jobs with livable wages. DAWWN is part of an effort that recommends that Illinois becomes an “Employment First” state. The recommendation means that Illinois would develop programs that promote employment in the community as the first and preferred option for individuals with disabilities who receive publicly funded services in Illinois. According to Luna, Employment First will “transform the landscape.” He says, “ the goal is good paying jobs in an inclusive and participatory economy, not simply training programs or segregated employment” Traditionally, sheltered workshops have provided segregated work environments in which people with disabilities perform mundane tasks for pennies an hour, in other words, dead end jobs for people with disabilities.
For Employment First to work, the Department of Human Services will have to partner and coordinate with other state agencies. According to Luna, DHS, the Division of Developmental Disabilities the Department of Labor, the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, and the Department of Employment Securities will all need to collaborate for the effort to be successful. “If state agencies, policy gurus and the disabled community work together there will be more opportunity to form collaboration with the business community,” Luna said.
A significant piece of the collaboration will involve job accommodations. Though typical accommodations cost less than $100, businesses are hesitant to reach out to the disability community because of uncertainty around accommodations. Luna says the state can help fill that information gap. In order for the collaboration with business to work, Luna believes that the “State has to be an integral partner in creating reasonable accommodations and supports that people need in order to work long term.”
Though much needs to be done in the future, DAWWN members were pleased with the “Meet and Greet.” DAWWN’s co-chair, Susan Aarup, noted that the first seven questions directed at Hanson came from people with disabilities. Aarup said, “Hanson had the opportunity to listen directly to people with disabilities. Not just service providers. We gave our people a voice.”