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August 9th, 2013 by

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Delaware’s Governor Jack Markell spoke with EARN staff about his year as Chair of the National Governor’s Association (NGA), and his Chair initiative, A Better Bottom Line: Employing People with Disabilities. Governor Markell and the NGA Center for Best Practice recently unveiled a Blueprint for Governors for states that wish to implement programs to increase employment of individuals with disabilities based on collected best practices from the public and private sector.

EARN: Why did you choose the employment of individuals with disabilities as the focal point for your year as head of the NGA?

Gov. Markell: I don’t have any personal connection to the issue, but about ten years ago I visited a Delaware employer that is a very good employer of people with disabilities, and I met a guy who was twenty-five years old at the time – he was making promotional materials. He had Down syndrome, and he was extraordinarily excited to have this job, and he told me how excited he was and I asked him what he had done before he got this job and he told me that he had sat at home for six years watching TV with his parents.

A light bulb went off in my head about the profound improvement in his quality of life and the quality of life of his parents, since he had, every morning, a reason to wake up. He had a purpose. He had a place to go. He had a team of people to work with. He was part of something bigger than himself. He was productive and he could earn a paycheck – and from the perspective of his parents, he was not going be sitting around all day getting depressed.

I’ve always thought about that guy, and when I found out I had the opportunity to serve as chair of the NGA, I thought this was an issue where we could move the needle. I thought it was an issue which could be totally bipartisan and it was an area where there was a significant need.

EARN: What do you think have been the major successes and challenges of the initiative?

Gov. Markell: The near-term goal was to produce a blueprint, which was recently unveiled at the NGA meeting in Milwaukee – but if all we do is produce a blueprint that nobody does anything with, then it’s not going to be a success.

I think one of the key things is that this is not a matter of charity. It’s a matter of what’s in the best interest of business…

I think one of the key things is that this is not a matter of charity. It’s a matter of what’s in the best interest of the business and I think that’s really, really important; that people look at this not just as an initiative of government, but they look at this as an initiative of businesses. So to have people like Greg Wasson, who is the CEO of Walgreens, say to other business leaders that he employs people with disabilities not out of charity, but because it’s in the best interest of his shareholders, that is very powerful. And what we’d really love to do is figure out how states can be highly supportive of businesses so that more businesses can provide employment opportunities to people with disabilities.

EARN: You recently unveiled the Blueprint for Governors, could you share some of the key findings?

Gov. Markell: We divide the report into five areas. One of them is about the importance of integrating the issue of employing people with disabilities into a state’s overall workforce development strategy. This cannot be a stand-alone, and it can’t be the kind of thing where people in the division of vocational rehabilitation go off to a business and say ‘can you please do me a favor, I have these people with disabilities and I’d like you to find jobs for them.’ That is not the most effective strategy. The most effective strategy is when Departments of Labor and Economic Development Offices see themselves as partners to the businesses, helping the businesses solve problems. The problems that businesses are trying to solve are how we find people with the right skills.

Number two – what can states do to support businesses as for-profit entities, as opposed to thinking about the initiative as charity. Number three – how do we make sure that governments are model employers? I think it’s a lot easier to go to a business to say, ‘we want to be your partner, we’re going to help you find people with the right skills, some of those people might have disabilities’— it’s easier to find businesses willing to do that if they see that the states are walking the walk and are providing employment opportunities and scoring themselves.

Number four – we’ve got to do a much better job of preparing our young people with disabilities for lifetimes of careers and employment. And as opposed to preparing them when they are 17 or 18, we need to prepare them from the time that they’re much younger – to say, ‘you’re going to work and we’re going to provide you with the training’. We’re going to provide the substantive skills training – we’re going to teach what it means to hold down a job, to show up on time, to have a good attitude – all of those things. The fifth area is focused on making sure that we’re leveraging resources available beyond state governments – this could be federal resources, foundation resources and the like.

EARN: Do you believe that this blueprint will be easily replicable within both the public and private employment sectors?

Gov. Markell: I don’t think it’s easy, but I think it’s clear. There are a lot of very specific best practice programs included from around the country. Every state’s going to want to do it their way, but I think it offers a road map. I would never say this kind of thing is easy, because it requires a change in mindset and that’s always difficult. But for those places where the leadership wants to do it, where there’s a commitment to make it happen – I think it’s absolutely do-able.

EARN: What steps do you think should be taken to ensure that momentum gained through this initiative during your chair year will continue?

Gov. Markell: I think it’s really about accountability. And I’m hopeful that organizations like yours and other advocates are going to hold governors, states and businesses accountable. There’s been a tremendous amount of work that’s gone into this, but in the end the only thing that matters is whether or not more people with disabilities are getting a shot.

About two years ago I read a blog entry in the New York Times about a guy in Denmark whose son has autism, and the guy knew that his son was likely on a path to a not very fulfilling life. So he actually left his job, and decided to start an organization called Specialisterne that would focus on providing jobs for people with autism. He knew that there were a lot of people on the autism spectrum who were very good at detailed work, whether it’s data testing, software analysis or the like. I called him, and to make a long story short, he is moving his family to Delaware and he wants to bring his organization to North America. Just within the last six weeks or so, SAP, a software company, announced that it plans within the next three years to have one percent of its employees be people with autism. An IT company in Delaware said that they’re going to have 3 percent of their employees be people with autism. That’s just one example of how I think people are getting it. This is the ultimate bipartisan issue, and I’m really hopeful that we’ll find some good momentum behind it.

Jack Markell was sworn in as Delaware’s governor on January 19, 2009, and was sworn in for his second term on January 15, 2013. He recently completed a term as chair of the National Governors Association. For more information on this initiative to increase employment of individuals with disabilities, visit the National Governor’s Association at http://ci.nga.org/cms/home/1213/index

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