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Working Reality: Report outlines many job hurdles facing people with disabilities

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A new report outlining the continued barriers to employment for people with disabilities in Greater Rochester highlights how the problem intersects with poverty, racism, and other issues of social justice.

The issue isn't new, and it isn't unique to Rochester.

According to the report, "Working Reality," the employment rate for people with disabilities is 42% lower than the employment rate for those without disabilities, and people with disabilities are over-represented in the lowest-paying industries.

Using data from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey Estimate, the report's lead researcher and author, Luticha Doucette, found that people with disabilities make up 9% of Rochester's workforce.

Many work in food service and retail jobs, earning between $17,000 and $20,000 per year.

"And that's still poverty-level," Doucette said. "Even if you're working, you're still not earning enough to actually make a living in this area."

The report traces the roots of the issue to as early as people's preschool years, when they have trouble accessing needed services, to barriers throughout their lives as they try to access education at all levels, as well as housing, transportation, social services and more.

A 2018 report written by Doucette had similar conclusions, but she said it never gained any real traction within the community.

"This (current) report is a starting point and an invitation to say, 'How do we collectively move together,' because I know so many people are out here doing great work and just need more guidance," she said.

Since 2018, employment for people with disabilities in Monroe County has decreased from 33% to 25%. Doucette doesn't know if the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to the decline or if it is the result of other factors.

Even those who are employed face barriers. Doucette spoke to people who pass up job promotions for fear of losing their Medicaid benefits.

Working Reality recommends that New York state increase the income threshold for a Medicaid buy-in program, which is currently $69,000 for a single person and about $95,000 for married couples. By comparison, the state of Iowa's cut-off point for benefits is $400,000.

"Just because I need care doesn't mean that I shouldn't be able to progress in my job," Doucette said. "People are making a decision between access to health care versus their employment, and that's a decision nobody should have to make."

Doucette is encouraged by recent efforts from the Urban League and Ibero American Action League to address the needs of people with disabilities. But she said Black-led organizations have historically not been well-represented in such initiatives.

"If you know that 62% of people who are disabled have a high school diploma or less, and they're moving into these high-risk jobs, and we know that being disabled puts you at risk for certain death, why would we continue to allow that happen in this community, a community that is about justice?" she asked.

Doucette is hosting a virtual community summit on from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 24 to continue the conversation. She hopes the event draws human resources managers, job recruiters, service providers. The summit is free for people with disabilities.

This story is reported from WXXI’s Inclusion Desk.

Beth Adams joined WXXI as host of Morning Edition in 2012 after a more than two-decade radio career. She was the longtime host of the WHAM Morning News in Rochester. Her career also took her from radio stations in Elmira, New York, to Miami, Florida.