I have been passionate about disability employment for over four decades, my degree is in Vocational Rehabilitation Counseling, and I began my career as a Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor for the Colorado Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. During my time as a state legislator, I sponsored and co-sponsored several bills to improve paths to employment for people with disabilities.
October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). During October, we spotlight the importance of employing people with disabilities. This year coincides with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) 30th anniversary and the 100th anniversary of the first vocational rehabilitation program for people with disabilities. While there is much to celebrate, there is still more progress that must be made.
Governor Polis and I ran on the promise of a “Colorado for All.” Our vision includes people with disabilities. Our administration has made progress to improve employment opportunities in state government for people with disabilities, and other underrepresented demographics. We know the value of hiring people from different backgrounds and the importance of lived experience and representation in government.
The recent Executive Order on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion signed by Governor Polis included people with disabilities, as did the Universal Policy from the Department of Personnel and Administration. We know disability crosses all other demographics. We also created a temporary position in the Department of Labor and Employment focused exclusively on making the state a model employer of people with disabilities.
Disabilities can be hidden or visible; physical, cognitive, behavioral, neurologic, visual, intellectual, auditory, or any combination. Disability can impact anyone and does not discriminate by age, gender, income, race, ethnicity, geographic location, or any other demographic. People with disabilities are people and should be given equal opportunities.
Opportunities for employment continue to increase for people with disabilities. Technologies for mainstream use and custom solutions to accommodate people with disabilities are rapidly improving. Transportation can be a barrier to employment for some people with disabilities; however, remote work has, fortunately, become more normalized for many professions.
For many people with disabilities, private insurance is inadequate to meet their daily care needs, therefore, keeping Medicaid is critical. Until 2012, keeping Medicaid and receiving long-term services and supports in Colorado required people with disabilities to limit their earnings in most cases to $2,095 per month and assets to $2,000; prosperity is not possible with these constraints.
The Medicaid Buy-in for Working Adults with Disabilities introduced in Colorado in 2012 was a game-changer. Individuals eligible through the buy-in can earn over $9,000 per month, have unlimited assets, and buy into Medicaid on an income-based sliding scale. For the first time in their lives, Coloradans with disabilities had a path to prosperity. Presently, over 13,000 people are enrolled through this eligibility category! In June of this year, Governor Polis signed SB20-033 extending eligibility past age 65 since people are now working later in life.
Customized employment is a growing option many employers and individuals with disabilities find very successful, matching an individual’s skills to the employer’s needs. This can require more effort when the person is hired but can be a formula for long-term success in employment that maximizes a person’s abilities and meets the employer’s needs.
Employers benefit from inclusive hiring and intentional equity, diversity, and inclusion practices. People with disabilities bring skills, life experiences, and tenacity that are hard to match. While some people with disabilities require reasonable accommodations to do their jobs, employers have reported many of these cost nothing and those with a cost, average less than $500. Hiring people with disabilities is not about pity, it is good for business.
For people with disabilities, you need to know you can work, you can get assistance with training and tools to work, you can get benefits counseling, you can save for your future, and you can request reasonable accommodations from your employer to do your jobs. Local Centers for Independent Living can help.
Employers interested in hiring people with disabilities should contact the Colorado Division of Vocational Rehabilitation at 303-549-7462. Additional resources include the Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion and Job Accommodation Network.
We can continue to improve opportunities for people with disabilities with intentional actions to improve hiring practices, flexibility in job duties, and most importantly positive attitudes about employing people with disabilities. Together we can create a Colorado for All.
Dianne Primavera is Lt. Gov. of Colorado.