R.I. seeks to connect disabled to jobs

The director of a local program designed to help the disabled enter the work force is “cautiously optimistic” that state officials are now serious about solving the problems that have hobbled that effort.

Elaina Goldstein, project director of Rhodes of Independence, said last week that she has gotten unprecedented support from Gary Alexander, director of the R.I. Department of Human Services, and Ellen Nelson, director of the R.I. Department of Mental Health, Retardation and Hospitals. Both were appointed within the last year.

“This really is the first year I feel that we have a collaboration,” said Goldstein, who has overseen the project and its annual $500,000 federal grant since its inception seven years ago.

That collaboration, which also includes the R.I. Department of Labor and Training, took a step forward last week when state and federal officials and other “stakeholders” assembled to discuss how best to overcome obstacles to bringing people with disabilities into the work force – and into self-sufficiency.

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There have been discussions before, but officials touted the gathering, at Save The Bay in Providence, as groundbreaking because of the process used to tackle and solve the issues: They used the quality control process Six Sigma, led by an expert from Raytheon Co.

Goldstein said the federal government has asked state officials to map out strategies, but the problem is that after plans are completed, “then there’s no implementation.”

That’s where Six Sigma comes in, Goldstein said. In this case, the method was used for not just strategic planning to overcome barriers, she said, but to encourage participants to implement their plans. “High-level people from state agencies are sitting here making a commitment for the day to listen to what the problems are. This is huge,” she said.

The job ahead is substantial.

Advocates say those with disabilities are a virtually untapped resource for employers. Many employers are concerned about hiring them, and the disabled themselves worry that they will lose their government benefits if they work. Or they don’t know about resources available to help them enter the work force.

Last year, state figures show, 31,835 Rhode Islanders received disability benefits from the Social Security Administration; only 6 percent of them were employed.

Meanwhile, a Medicaid buy-in program called the Sherlock Plan, which allows people with disabilities to earn wages while continuing to get government health coverage, has been underutilized since its creation in January 2006.

“We found some problems with the design,” Goldstein said. People with disabilities making up to $50,000 annually can buy into the Medicaid program, but the premiums were too high, and some participants end up paying $600 to $700 a month.

Other programs, Goldstein said, are simply not well-enough known. And there are conflicts between federal and state laws and guidelines that discourage people with disabilities from seeking employment.

“You can spend two years getting on Social Security and you have to prove you’re permanently disabled,” she explained. “But once you finish proving you’re permanently disabled, why would you be in a mindset to go back to work?”

When the Rhodes to Independence advisory board – a mix of business leaders, state agencies and consumers – held a Social Security summit in March to discuss some of these barriers, Raytheon project manager Steve Tamburro told Goldstein that the Six Sigma method could help tackle the issues.

So last week, dozens of high-ranking officials – including Alexander and Nelson – attended a one-day retreat, which was supervised by Raytheon employees. U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin, a quadriplegic, provided the opening remarks, pledging his support.

“While I have been fortunate, I know there are too many other people with disabilities in Rhode Island and across the nation who are stuck in their homes when they could be sitting in a classroom, a boardroom, or with me in Congress,” Langevin said. 

Participants spent the morning working in small groups, each looking at specific issues. Helping to supervise the discussions was David Roudebush, a chemical engineer at a Raytheon location in Forest, Miss., and a quadriplegic – the result of a battle with spinal cord cancer two decades ago.

“The bottom is line is, it’s the bottom line,” Roudebush said in explaining why employers show reluctance in hiring the disabled. Businesses “have got to make money,” he added, and they believe they have enough to do without dealing with the needs of a disabled employee.

“So it’s a lack of information and sensitivity to the fact that it really doesn’t cost that much to employ [people with disabilities],” Roudebush said.

Also participating was Daniel Barrett, a legally blind Raytheon employee based in Tucson, Ariz. During a break, Barrett pointed to Raytheon as an example what can happen if an employer is willing to hire someone with a disability.

Because he can’t see well, Barrett, a supply chain manager, had to collect and organize information on his computer in a different way. But he realized his method would be quicker for others, too. “I was able to share some of that knowledge with co-workers and helped make their jobs more efficient,” he said.

“There’s a huge untapped resource of people with disabilities in the community,” Barrett said. “We’re working hard at Raytheon to tap those resources, but we have a long way to go.”

Goldstein said she could feel the enthusiasm building among the retreat participants.

“I think people are very excited, because they’ve been frustrated that we’ve been stuck,” she said. “We’ve been stuck because before we didn’t have the leadership to make a commitment.” •