Independence is proud to announce that SB 2271, the “Employment First Bill” has passed the house unanimously and is now awaiting Governor Jack Dalrymple’s signature. You can read Scott’s testimony on the bill below....
Senate Bill 2271- Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities.
Chairmen Weisz, and Members of the House Human Service Committee, my name is Scott Burlingame, and I am the Executive Director of Independence Inc., a Center for Independent Living with a home office in Minot. Independence Inc. is a disability rights organization and our mission is to advocate for the freedom of choice for individuals with disabilities to live independently through the removal of all barriers. I am here today to ask for your support for SB2271 and its proposed amendments to the committee on the employment of persons with disabilities.
One of the primary goals at Independence Inc. and at all Centers for Independent Living is to remove the barriers that prevent people with disabilities from being full participants in their communities. One of the biggest gaps between the participation level of people with disabilities and their non-disabled peers is employment.
Whereas some studies have shown the employment outcomes in North Dakota to be better than the national average, the overall employment picture for people with disabilities remains a national embarrassment.
I am a firm believer that if we can improve employment outcomes for people with disabilities, so many other key indicators of life satisfaction will get better. Everybody knows that with employment comes a salary, however, employment is often also a precursor for health insurance, for a social life, and for a life that allows people with disabilities to leave a life of charity and public assistance behind.
I think it is very important to remember, that I am not just an advocate for employment of people with disabilities, but I am also an employer. According to federal law, as a Center for Independent Living, over half of the staff are people with disabilities. For the last 12 years, I have been involved in dozens of interviews for employment in which I have actively been trying to hire qualified people with disabilities.
It is really this facet of my life that I was forced to challenge my personal beliefs on how we as a society have been viewing the importance of employment for people with disabilities. Being an employer has really shown me that even when I am aggressively trying to hire people with disabilities, far too often they are not being properly prepared for the workforce.
However, I have seen many stories of people who have overcome huge disability related barriers in order to become productive employees. I have long believed that the secret to unlocking the employment potential for all people with disabilities exists in a few of these amazing people I have worked with.
But sadly, the numbers show us the stories of people who overcome a life of economic dependency to live fully independent lives as part of the workforce is far too rare. I believe the time has come for a change in how we think about employment and people with disabilities. For far too long, it has been accepted that disability is an excuse not to be part of the workforce. For far too long, employment has been seen as something that is out of reach for far too many people. The cost of this in terms of lost human capital and increased support services is unacceptable and avoidable.
That is the first thing I like about SB 2271 is it begins to address this issue, by making it very clear that employment is the first and preferred outcome for the provision of services in North Dakota. Quite simply, it is a statement by this legislative body that people with disabilities can and should work.
Secondly, this bill begins the process of bringing together several state agencies, including agencies that provide support, education, and employment services with a clear directive to do better, My hope is by doing this, we can remove some of the bureaucratic and societal barriers that far too often reward and support the decision to stay out of the competitive workforce. Bringing these agencies together, we can identify process and practices that can truly change the employment outcomes of North Dakotan’s with disabilities.
In conclusion, Independence Inc. has taken the position that employment should be the first and preferred outcome for all people with disabilities. We believe that this employment should be in an intergraded, community based setting at a competitive wage. This goal is not easy, but we must begin moving towards it. This bill is a major step in that direction. I hope you will support it, and I would be glad to answer any questions you may have.