Monday, March 13, 2017

Living with a disability in rural America (Part II): adults and employment

As a follow up to my last blog post on children with disabilities in rural America, I decided to explore some of the employment challenges faced by adults with disabilities in rural areas.

This is not the first time disability and employment have been discussed on this blog. Some of you may have read Lisa Pruitt's 2013 post discussing NPR's "Unfit for Work," a piece that explored being "on disability," as the phrase is often used. Being "on disability" means that the individual no longer works, but instead, receives a monthly payment from the federal government in lieu of a paycheck. In NPR's story the reporter highlights Hale County, Alabama, a rural area where (at the time of this story) nearly 1 in 4 working-age adults received federal disability assistance.

A more recent article from Bloomberg Businessweek highlights the current geographic distribution of people receiving disability benefits. This map (shown below) notes the emergence of "disability belts" in rural areas that include: Appalachia, the Deep South, and the Arkansas-Missouri border.

Credit: Bloomberg Businessweek
Another visual provided by the American Community Survey reports that for people who self-identify as having a disability (not necessarily those who receive federal disability assistance) the national disability rate is estimated to be 12.4%, while the rate in rural counties is estimated at 17.7%.
Credit: University of Montana Rural Institute 
Although an aging population may partially explain the higher disability rate in rural counties, the University of Montana's Rural Institute notes that disability rates are generally higher in rural areas across all ages and impairment types. One researcher posits that these numbers may be explained by the higher rates of injuries, limited emergency responses, and less access to preventative and primary health care in rural settings.

After reviewing these statistics, I wondered: what barriers do adults with disabilities and transitioning adults (those leaving high school) encounter in seeking employment? For some people with disabilities finding employment can be a challenging and frustrating task, but for people in rural areas, this challenge is even greater. Generally speaking, rural students transitioning from school fall behind their urban peers in rates of employment and postsecondary education after graduation. So are transitioning students with disabilities in rural areas destined to be "on disability" when they reach 18?

When a student transitions from school, there are a variety of routes the student might take. These options (which are not exhaustive) can include: post-secondary education, vocational training, independent employment, supported employment, or unemployment. For this post, I am only going to focus on employment.

Vocational rehabilitation agencies (VR agencies) are the state-supported offices charged with helping people with disabilities find employment. VR agencies often work with vendors to provide rural job services. Vendors are the individuals, private agencies, or community programs who connect people with disabilities to employment opportunities. Depending on the state and the contract, a vendor might be paid in different ways, depending on whether their consumers (people with disabilities) meet certain milestones or benchmarks in their employment plans. A milestone, for example, might include getting placed with an employer or reaching 90 days on the job.

But according to the Rural Institute, in rural areas the vendor options are typically limited and some rural regions are not served by any vendors. Another common problem in rural areas is that vendors may have to work with "mom and pop" establishments that hire few employees. Securing these job opportunities can also be a longer process because the vendor will need to establish a relationship with the employer and there may be fewer job openings. In contrast, vendors who work in urban settings have access to larger businesses, so once they establish a relationship with an employer they can secure more job placements for people with disabilities, which makes urban areas easier and cheaper to serve.

For students transitioning out of school, VR agencies report that maintaining connections with rural schools can be difficult because of the variation in the eligible student population and the large service areas of rural communities. Some VR employees may serve between 8-22 counties, limiting the amount of contact with each transitioning student. But supported career counseling between a school and VR agency might be more effective in rural areas where a full-time VR counselor is not available.

A lack of access or limited access to technology - like email - can impact communication between a VR worker and a person with a disability in a rural area. In some instances, the individual may not even be capable of using email, depending on the level and type of disability.

And finally, the absence of available and affordable transportation is a huge barrier for people with disabilities who work in rural areas. Support from family, friends, and other co-workers is most frequently cited as the primary transportation option for people with disabilities who do not have their own vehicle. Without this support system in place, it can be difficult or even impossible for a person with a disability to reach their employer.

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