Is Ohio a model for community employment?

Minnesota is looking toward Ohio when it comes to community-based jobs for people with developmental disabilities.

The state recently began a voluntary initiative known as “Way to Work,” which focuses on talking to adults with disabilities about their ambitions and the possibility of working in the community. Minnesota’s program is based on Ohio’s “Employment First,” which puts employment as the preferred outcome for all working-age adults.

In recent weeks, state and county workforce officials have quietly introduced an ambitious new project — modeled after a highly successful program in Ohio — to give people with disabilities an alternative to working in “sheltered workshops,” cloistered workplaces that pay as little as $2 an hour for mundane jobs such as packing boxes, shredding paper and collecting trash.

The program tests the assumption that people with developmental disabilities prefer the safety and routine of segregated workshops to better-paying jobs in the competitive workplace. If broadened statewide, the program could mark a fundamental shift in Minnesota, giving those who yearn for integrated employment far more control over their lives and career choices.

The voluntary initiative, known as “Way to Work,” is driven by a simple concept: That people with disabilities are more likely to find jobs in the general workforce if trained counselors talk to them openly and regularly about their ambitions.

In just six weeks, one in three people who labor at an Eagan workshop operated by ProAct Inc., one of the state’s largest workshop operators, have indicated they want jobs in the regular workforce for competitive pay. They are now working with state and county social workers to make that dream a reality.

“This is remarkable,” said Megan Zeilinger, an employment planner at Dakota County. “It shows that there are probably hundreds of people at workshops across this state who want jobs in the community, but no one has ever bothered to talk to them.”

Read the whole story in the Minnesota Star Tribune.

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