A bill passed by the Pennsylvania House aims to help high school students with disabilities gain employment rather than “graduating to the couch.”
The “Work Experience for High School Students with Disabilities Act” would develop official pathways between local education agencies, organizations and employers and establish a funding mechanism helmed by the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR) in the Department of Labor and Industry.
“It gives young people with disabilities an opportunity to identify independence, to have an opportunity to see that sense of responsibility and to give them a change to be a strong part of our economy and a strong part of Pennsylvania,” said Sen. Sean Wiley (D-Erie).
In a statement on House Bill 400, its sponsor, Rep. Mauree Gingrich (R-Lebanon) said that too often students with disabilities graduate from high school with little hope of entering the job market, or are placed in segregated settings with other people with disabilities where the taxpayer investment in their education is not fully realized.
In 2014, 17 percent of people with disabilities were employed compared to 65 percent without disabilities, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That same year, the unemployment rate of persons with a disability was more than double the rate for those without.
“It’s not about the disability; it’s not a matter of them not being able to do certain things,” said Wiley, “it’s a matter of giving them the opportunity to do things. They just do it in a different way, and I think that if we’re able to provide a service to them, to give them the opportunity to do so, we must do that.”
Under the bill, the OVR would be required to collaborate with local education officials and other public agencies such as county mental health and intellectual disabilities programs in the development of Individual Educational Plans for high school students with disabilities. It would also be responsible for arranging, monitoring and supporting the placement of high school students with disabilities in internships, on-the-job training programs or full or part-time work in the public or private sector.
Wiley and Sen. John Sabatina (D-Philadelphia) met with students with disabilities along with members of the “I Want to Work” social media campaign this week to show their support for the legislation.
Students expressed their concern that the House legislation would become an unintended casualty of the months-long budget impasse between Republican state lawmakers and Governor Tom Wolf. The governor’s budget proposal included $5 million for a program that would find part-time and summer jobs for young people with disabilities when they are in 10th and 11th grades. The state funding would be matched by nearly $19 million in federal funds in the 2015-16 budget.
The bill is awaiting consideration by the Senate Appropriations Committee.