In the wake of the series of massive and ubiquitous changes which the global COVID-19 pandemic has wrought to nearly every area of life, an opportunity for people with disabilities to enforce their right to work has emerged.
The United States is facing an historic shortage of workers in the wake of the pandemic:
We are in a period of worker shortage in nearly every industry, the likes of which have not been seen in recent memory. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows a:
“(S)eries high of 11.5 million (job openings) on the last business day of March (2022).”
In essence, the workers now have the power to dictate the terms of their employment in hours, wages and accommodations.
People with diagnoses and labels of disability are employed at approximately one third of the rate of people without labels or diagnoses of disability:
People with labels of disability are chronically unemployed and underemployed. In Maine that is approximately 217,000 people, according to self-reported data as of December 2020. Current statistics from the Maine Center for Workforce Research and Information indicate that about 16 percent of the population of Maine is made up of people with one or more disability diagnosis, and about half of this number is of “working age” meaning between the ages of 18 and 64 years old. As of 2019, only 35 percent of working age Mainers with disabilities were employed versus 81 percent of Mainers without a disclosed disability. This is an unemployment rate of three times that of other working age adults.
As the data indicates, the high unemployment rates of people with disabilities in Maine is not a problem that arose with the pandemic. However, the resulting labor shortage underscores that Maine cannot afford to have tens of thousands of eligible workers not even accessing the job market.
Maine is also an Employment First State:
Employment First describes a Federal and State Statutory scheme that codifies access to and prioritization of employment for people with labels of disability. In essence, this means that for people with disabilities receiving state funded services, employment should be the first and preferred option for use of those services before day programs, etc. The theoretical underpinnings of the Employment First Statute is that all people with disabilities, even the most significant disabilities, can access employment with the appropriate facilitation and integration into community-based employment, or customized employment. Customized employment is defined by Maine Statute and essentially describes employment incorporating a flexible blend of strategies, services and supports through negotiation with the employer.
In part, the call for solutions and multi-faceted approaches to actually prioritizing employment over day programming, for example, has been a topic of conversation by the state and providers for many years. With the increase in need for workers, it is time to put the ideas and initiatives into action.
One of the areas deeply affected by the worker shortage through the Pandemic is staffing for the services and programs designated for people with labels of intellectual and developmental disability in Maine.
Lack of staffing disproportionately and severely affects people living with disabilities who receive residential services or community support services in Maine. This is because these folks often live in staffed homes or access day programs that rely on support staff, or Direct Support Professionals (DSPs).
In DRM’s daily work providing legal services and advocacy for individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, lack of staffing comes up constantly and results in violations and restrictions on our clients’ civil rights, including access to their friends and families and the community and access to employment. In short, there is a serious and growing need for more Direct Support Professionals entering the field, and a need for a culture shift in valuing and honoring the work that DSPs perform, as a corollary to the much-needed culture shift to valuing and honoring the people DSPs serve.
One agency in Washington DC, has approached the lack of employment for people with disabilities and the dovetailing lack of support staff, i.e. Direct Support Professionals (DSPs), by creating an entirely new training program. The agency is Revitalizing Community Membership of Washington (RCM of Washington) – the program is the DSP Academy.
The concept of the DSP Academy is to create a training designed for people with disabilities who are interested in the healthcare field and accessible to people with and without disabilities to become DSPs.
In the creation phase of this project, RCM received this feedback from a disability rights activist and self-advocate: People with disabilities have been taking care of each other for as long as we can remember. Why wouldn’t we be qualified to become DSPs and get paid for it?
The agency RCM provides residential services, day programming and employment services in Washington DC to people with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities. The DSP academy came about as part of this agency’s process to align their work with their values of person-centered thinking and community practice.
The DSP academy is a training course for people with and without disabilities to become Direct Service Professionals. It is geared to people who have interest in going into the healthcare field, and RCM developed the curriculum to be more comprehensive and accessible than other existing programs. They have also developed a Spanish language curriculum and training tools to be responsive to the needs of the DC community.
The student body comes from both the RCM’s vocational rehabilitation wing and from DC area public schools and vocational training programs for youth ages 18 to 24 who are interested in the health care field.
As of December 2021, 51 people had been accepted into the DSP academy, 49 had completed the training and gotten certified as Direct Support Professionals. For DSP academy graduates, the employment rate is 60% even during the pandemic. The academy uses aspects of customized employment and seeks to place people in jobs that match their skills and needs around employment.
For example, a DSP academy graduate who does best with a regular set schedule was matched with a person who had a regular volunteer shift three days a week. This kind of matching allows for ultimate success of both the academy graduate and the person being supported. Initiatives like the DSP academy are bringing some much-needed support and infrastructure to the employment table for people with disabilities who are interested in the healthcare field.
IN MAINE, NOW IS THE TIME TO FOCUS ON PERSON-CENTERED VALUES, EMPLOYMENT FIRST AND DECREASE BARRIERS TO EMPLOYMENT AND SELF-EMPLOYMENT FOR MAINERS WITH DISABILITIES
As the labor shortage continues, employers continue to offer better wages, work place flexibility, benefits etc. to attract employees. This is the time to increase employment access in integrated accessible and accommodating ways for all people with disabilities.
In the work of Disability Rights Maine Client Assistance Program, our advocate, Julia Endicott, has seen one individual realize her dream of working with children in a day care setting. The client would have been forestalled from finding an accessible employer prior to the worker shortage. She is able to work ten hours per week, two hours per day to assist the day-care center during lunch time. This schedule is ideal for her, and she would not have been able to work the average number of hours the employer traditionally required. However, with the shortage of daycare workers, the employer not only accommodated DRM’s client’s schedule, they are happy to have the help! DRM has also successfully advocated with Vocational Rehabilitation to support another individual in starting a fishing business.
In the coming year, the Maine State Office of Aging and Disability Services will be receiving $50,000 in funds to support people with Intellectual and/or Developmental Disabilities for whom Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) has failed or who weren’t served by VR in seeking self-employment options. Hopefully this will bring new and different options to people with disabilities in Maine and support innovative ideas in new businesses for Maine!
As always, some folks are doing it themselves. Maine can proudly boast about our state’s TikTok Star, Chef Adam Libby, who shares cooking videos with the world from his home in Lincoln, ME. Also, Caleb Dunlap, who has started his own photography business, Good Eye Photography. These are the stories that have made the headlines, and are likely representative of many more efforts and ideas for self-employment people with disabilities have.
Amid the continuing changes and shifts to the landscape of employment for all, lets bring to the forefront the tenants and values of employment first, and the disability rights movement, and continue working towards and pushing for more innovations in this field.
 Strub, Spencer; “Pandemics have long created labor shortages. Here’s why.”; The Washington Post (June 3, 2021 at 6:00 am EDT), https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2021/06/03/pandemics-have-long-created-labor-shortages-heres-why/
Also Winch, Ben and Madison Hoff; “Job openings hit a record high March as businesses still struggle to find workers;” Insider (May 3, 2022, 10:07 AM), available at: https://www.businessinsider.com/job-openings-march-jolts-labor-shortage-hiring-market-great-resignation-2022-5
 Maine Developmental Disabilities Council; “Annual Report”; January 15, 2021; available at: https://maineddc.org/images/Reports/MDDC_Annual_Rpt_to_the_Legislature_2021.pdf
The Maine Center for Workforce Research and Information can be accessed here: https://www.maine.gov/labor/cwri/disabilities/index.html
 Pauli, Philip; “Building an Equitable Recovery: RespectAbility Advises Maine on Solutions for People with Disabilities;” RespectAbility (Dec. 15, 2021) available at: https://www.respectability.org/2021/12/maine-workforce-testimony/. “There are more … than 112,518 (working age ) Mainers living with some form of disability. Before the pandemic, only 36.2 percent of the working age population of people with disabilities were employed.”
 The Employment First Act was passed in Maine in 2013, and marks a stride towards codifying access and prioritization of Employment for people with disabilities in Maine. This text of the statute is codified at 26 M.R.S. §3401, et. seq. The Statute passed in Maine correlates with a National Department of Labor framework change that is centered around the premise that individuals with disabilities are capable of participation in competitive integrated employment and community life. More information on this can be found at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/odep/initiatives/employment-first.
 26 M.R.S. §3402(1).
 RCM of Washington’s web page for their DSP Academy can be accessed here: https://rcmofwashington.com/training-and-consulting/new-dsp-academy/
The Maine Association for Community Service Providers (MACSP) brought Susan Brooks, Chief Innovation Officer of RCM, and one of the creators of the DSP Academy, to Maine for a webinar about the DSP Academy and RCM’s process in creating and implementing the program in DC.
 The Client Assistance Program is a federally funded program that information, assistance, and advocacy to people with disabilities who are applying for or receiving services under the Rehabilitation Act. This work centers around rights and access to employment related rehabilitation services. For more information visit: https://drme.org/client-assistance-program
See also News Center Maine’s story on Mr. Libby’s TikTok stardom here: https://www.newscentermaine.com/article/features/maine-tiktok-star-emerges-from-the-kitchen-shares-his-cooking-passion-viral-entertainment-followers/97-9490b0d1-b9f8-44d1-b70e-400d84765398
See also News Center Maine’s story on Mr. Dunlap here: https://www.newscentermaine.com/article/life/a-young-man-with-down-syndrome-is-beating-the-odds-by-owning-a-business-of-his-own/97-82189b25-1627-4f59-9530-86f29b2f174d