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Employment First

On October 8, 2012, DC Mayor Vincent Gray issued a proclamation declaring the District of Columbia an Employment First State—the 20th state to do so nationwide. Mayor Gray’s  proclamation affirms that “employment is an important part of the lives of all working age adults and people with disabilities are a largely untapped resource with skills and talents who can meet the needs of area business and employers.” Under the Employment First philosophy, competitive, integrated employment is the first and overwhelmingly preferred option for working-age youth and adults with disabilities, regardless of the complexity or severity of their disabilities. The other main tenets of Employment First are that:

  • Employment services are tailored and customized to a person’s needs, interests, and skill set with the ultimate goal of achieving long-term employment in a competitive business or organization, or self-employment.
  • Employment is at the prevailing wage, and never less than minimum wage.
  • The employee has ample opportunities to integrate and interact with his or her coworkers, the public, and/or customers without disabilities.

Employment First in Action

Below are examples of initiatives underway to promote and implement Employment First within DDS and throughout DC:

DDS: Succeeding Together!

DDS: Succeeding Together! is a new initiative of the Department on Disability Services spotlighting the success stories and accomplishments of people served by DDS, through its Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) and Developmental Disabilities Administration (DDA). These are triumphs that wouldn’t have been possible without the efforts of DDS staff and our government and community partners.

DDS: Succeeding Together! enables DDS to recognize the talents and dedication of DDS staff, and of DDS’ partners in DC government and the service provider community – and is proof positive that our collective hard work really does make a difference in the lives of the people we serve. As part of DDS: Succeeding Together!, DDS is talking to people with disabilities and others they suggest to gather stories of the paths they took and challenges they overcome in achieving competitive, integrated employment.  For those who give their voluntary, informed consent, DDS is publicizing their stories in print and on the internet to highlight and promote their successes, as well as all that is in reach for people with disabilities.

Association of People Supporting Employment First (APSE)

The District established its own chapter of APSE in 2012. APSE is the only national organization with an exclusive focus on integrated employment and career advancement opportunities for people with disabilities. A nonprofit organization that has chapters in 35 states, APSE was founded in 1988, and aims to promote employment opportunities for all people, through local, regional, and national networks; help establish and expand equitable employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities; advocate with federal, state, and local legislators for legislation promoting integrated employment; work with federal, state, and local policy makers to increase funding for integrated employment; raise awareness within the business community as to the benefits of hiring individuals with disabilities; and advocate for social change to help those with severe disabilities achieve a lifestyle that approximates that of individuals without disabilities.

The 24th Annual National APSE Conference was held June 25-27, 2013, and will be held again in June 2014. To learn more about the APSE and their annual conference, visit the APSE website.

Employment First Leadership Consortium of Practice

DDS launched an Employment First Leadership Consortium of Practice following the District’s October 2012 declaration as an Employment First state. Consortium members include representatives from District agencies, RSA and DDA providers, and advocacy organizations who are leaders in promoting Employment First practices throughout the District.  Consortium members meet on a monthly basis to discuss new strategies and opportunities for collaboration in implementing and expanding Employment First practices District wide.

Employment Learning Community

As part of a competitive application process, the District was selected to receive technical assistance through the Employment Learning Community (ELC). A project of the Institute for Community Inclusion in partnership with The National Association of State Directors of Developmental Disabilities Services and TransCen, Inc, the ELC will provide significant technical assistance on ways to implement Employment First in the District as well as networking and learning opportunities from those other states selected to participate.

Customized Employment

DDS Has Launched a Customized Employment Community of Practice for those who are new to, but interested in, customized employment, and who provide employment services to people currently in other day activities. Customized Employment is being promoted by the United States Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) as an effective set of techniques to create a win-win for people with disabilities and employers, by enabling youth and adults with disabilities achieve employment outcomes that are tailored to employees’ skill sets and interests and employers’ needs.

DDS has also launched a second Customized Employment Community of Practice geared specifically to Trainers of Trainers— such as those people who will be the trainers, coaches, and resources to their colleagues, people with disabilities, and area employers, who are given the tools, resources, and strategies of Customized Employment to share with the people they serve and work with and implement on-the-ground.

DDS is working with TransCen, Inc. to offer a monthly webinar series to inform people on how to implement Customized Employment. Past webinars have included the following sessions:

  • Customized Employment Overview and Needs Assessment
  • Discovery and Assessment
  • Approaching Employers (Marketing Messages)
  • Surveying Employers
  • Negotiating with Employers and
  • Workplace Supports.

Achieving Employment First

Achieving Employment First is a conference sponsored by Georgetown University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDD), was held at Gallaudet University on June 10, 2013. The conference brought together local and national experts in Employment First to share strategies for breaking down the barriers people face to achieving substantial, long-term employment as a result of their disabilities. This well-attended conference gave participants the option of exploring one of three tracks during the day-long event following a welcome/plenary session, which included Transition, Customized Employment, and Policy and Resources.


ServeDC, the Mayor’s Office on Volunteerism, will award grants of up to $5,000 for National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM).  NDEAM, which is held every October, is a national, ODEP-sponsored initiative  that seeks to heighten awareness on disability employment issues as well as celebrate the contributions of American workers with disabilities.” This year’s theme is "Because We Are EQUAL to the Task."  Grants will be awarded to District-based service projects focused on disability inclusion. Eligible applicants are local nonprofit organizations, public or charter schools, universities, community groups, faith-based organizations, state and local units of government, and public organizations.

A DDS employment services provider is working with several organizations to provide technical assistance on customized employment and the process of becoming a waiver provider. The initiative’s end goal, which aims to double in scope by the end of 2013, is to increase integrated employment opportunities for those served by RSA and DDA, and people with disabilities District-wide.

Secondary Transition Community of Practice

A Secondary Transition Community of Practice was launched earlier in 2013 to bring together transition experts from the District’s school system, disability advocacy organizations, direct-service agencies, and transition-aged youth and their parents. These stakeholders in the transition process meet monthly to collaborate on increasing and improving outcomes for transition-age youth with disabilities as they leave secondary school and pursue work or higher education. Subcommittees of the CoP convene their own meetings focused on specific, transition-oriented initiatives including, for example, the Youth Leadership Subcommittee, which is rolling out a demonstration of Student-Led Individualized Education Plan meetings in several District schools. The goal is to use the information learned through the rollout and through conversations with parents, students, and educators, to develop implementation guidelines for Student-Led IEPs District-wide, while putting students in control of their transition from high school and the future that lies beyond it. 

Transition Toolkit

A Transition Toolkit is being developed by the nonprofit SchoolTalk in collaboration with RSA, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), DC Public Schools, and other stakeholders. The Toolkit’s aim is to provide students, parents, and teachers with implementable, adaptable resources and information that facilitate students’ secondary transition to employment or postsecondary education.

The Toolkit will provide support for the referral process, intake and eligibility, IEPs, transition plans, IPEs, and as needed elsewhere throughout the VR process. The end products will include:

  • the What Comes Next? Transition Guide for parents and students;
  • a Transition Road Map poster for distribution to and prominent display in schools;
  • updated color brochures, accessible PowerPoint presentations;
  • factsheets; and
  • suggested, specific roles and responsibilities in the transition process broken down between parents, students, DCRSA, and the school system.

Project SEARCH

Project SEARCH is a business-led, one year school-to-work program that takes place entirely at the workplace and includes a combination of classroom instruction, career exploration, and hands-on training through worksite rotations. It is hosted in three Federal Government Agencies this year. 

Competitive Employment Opportunity (CEO) program, an initiative of the DC Public schools, where 20 students meet weekly after school and are paired with mentors from industries that match students’ interests.  The students complete a capstone project starting in the end of June and an internship in July, and receive a stipend for their participation up to $1,000 which Capital Area Asset Builders will match to be used towards continued education. 

Two Community Forums on Employment were held in February and addressed local employment resources available to parents and students other than those that are provided by RSA. 

Ticket to Work

DDS has become an Administrative Employment Network under SSA’s Ticket to Work Program. If you receive SSI or SSDI, you are eligible to participate in Ticket to Work and receive employment services through DDS. Find out more the Ticket to Work program.

As part of Ticket to Work and VR service provision generally, DDS is working to expand the reach and scope of benefits counseling services for District residents with disabilities.

DDS is developing policies, procedures, and practices to support and advance self-employment opportunities for people whose employment goals include entrepreneurship.