WESA —Pennsylvania lawmakers made a step to continue helping the state’s young people with disabilities find fulfilling careers and enter the work force.
The Work Experience for High School Students with Disabilities Act was signed by Gov. Tom Wolf last week, and will increase funding for the Office of Vocations Rehabilitation, which works to connect students with disabilities with jobs, by $5 million.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, about 20 percent of people with disabilities are currently in the workforce. People with disabilities also face a much higher unemployment rate, at more than 10 percent, versus 4.4 percent for those without any disabilities. The newly-signed act aims to change that.
“We would invest a lot in their elementary, middle and high school education, and then they often graduated to the couch,” said United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania President Bob Nelkin. “They weren’t really given an opportunity to prepare for jobs and careers, and we didn’t make an effort to make sure they were included in the work force.”
United Way has been pushing for the passage of this act since 2014, Nelkin said. He said it will distribute $24 million to schools, Office of Vocations Rehabilitation programs and trainers through state and federal funding. Previously, students with disabilities would start working with the office about six months before graduating. Services will now start freshman year and help students find part-time and summer jobs.
“We can have these individuals who are not dependent on the government, who are able to fully live in inclusive environments doing not only what they want, but what they are called to do,” said Dr. Josie Badger, manager for United Way’s#IWantToWork campaign.
According to Gov. Wolf’s office, there are 15 Vocational Rehabilitation offices across the state, which worked with nearly 9,000 people last year.