Oregon Seeks to Enhance Employment Outcomes for People with Disabilities Through Private-Sector Engagement

By Rachel Wright, Policy Analyst

Over the past 10 years, the employment rate of Oregonians with disabilities has steadily risen and remains among the highest in the nation. Research by the Annual Disability Statistics Compendium shows that between 2012 and 2020, the employment rate of people with disabilities in Oregon rose 2.3 percentage points. This means that more than 18,000 additional Oregonians who have a disability found and maintained employment during that period. 

Oregon’s sustained engagement with private sector businesses has contributed to the improved employment outcomes among people with disabilities. In recent years, Oregon Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) – an office within the Oregon Department of Human Services – has spearheaded numerous initiatives to build the capacity of private sector employers to engage in disability inclusion efforts. These initiatives include: 

  • Establishing regional workforce and business coordinators that work with the private sector to identify workforce needs and help clients with disabilities find meaningful employment in high-growth industries. 
  • Forming the Interstate Disability Employment Alliance to develop cross border employment opportunities for people with disabilities. 
  • Hosting disability etiquette training for employers that partner with Oregon VR to foster more inclusive workplace environments. 

Regional Workforce and Business Coordinators 

A 2011 study by Rutgers University found that many successful employer and market driven initiatives to recruit, hire, train and retain people with disabilities are sustained by partnerships with intermediary organizations. Oregon VR not only acts as an intermediary between persons with disabilities and employers but designates regional workforce and business coordinators to lead these efforts.  

In 2021, the Oregon Department of Human Services expanded their workforce team to include four regional workforce and business coordinators. According to Statewide Workforce and Business Coordinator Kimberly Copeland, these coordinators work with employers and workforce partners within VR’s three service regions to establish long-standing relationships and identify local workforce development needs. They also connect clients with disabilities to employment opportunities that match their skill sets and align with their career goals. 

The Interstate Disability Employment Alliance 

Each day, numerous people cross the border between Oregon and Washington for work. Recognizing this, disability service providers in both states began collaborating in 2016 to develop cross-border business engagement strategies. This collaboration was intended to support efforts by local businesses to recruit and hire people with disabilities.  

These efforts were recently solidified with the establishment of the Interstate Disability Employment Alliance. Alliance membership has evolved over time, but currently consists of the Oregon Department of Human Services, the Oregon Commission for the Blind, the Washington Department of Social and Health Services and the Washington Department of Services for the Blind.  

To help businesses build more inclusive work environments, alliance members have hosted trainings on disability etiquette and awareness for private sector employers. For example, in 2020 the alliance hosted three lunch and learn events for businesses and their employees to learn more about diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace. Lunch and learn topics included an overview of the Americans with Disabilities Act, “Disability Etiquette for Blind and Low Vision” and “Northwest ADA Center Resources.” 

Disability Etiquette and Awareness Training  

Oregon VR and the Oregon Commission for the Blind offer disability etiquette training(s) to interested businesses. These trainings teach employers about respectful communication and interaction with people who have disabilities as well as how to ensure the accessibility of physical workplaces and information and communication technology. Developing a baseline understanding of respectful communication and accessibility principles can prevent unintended exclusion of employees with disabilities in the workplace and make all employees feel welcome and fully included.  

Trainings offered by Oregon VR and the Oregon Commission for the Blind address topics such as “Identifying and Eliminating Unconscious Bias,” “Cultivating an Inclusive Culture,” “Words Matter: Let’s Talk Disability” and “Reasonable Accommodations.” Further, the Commission for the Blind provides training on topics such as assistive technology and accommodations for job seekers and employees with vision loss. 

Policy Considerations for State Leaders 

Engagement with the private sector can help states enhance employment outcomes for people with disabilities. Oregon VR has achieved this through initiatives that identify the workforce needs of the private sector, connect job seekers to businesses to fill those needs and enhance disability awareness in the workplace. Additional policy considerations for state leaders to support the private sector in disability employment efforts include: 

  • Extending diversity and inclusion initiatives to businesses contracting with state agencies. 

States can consider extending diversity and inclusion policies for state government contractors. This can include requirements to prepare affirmative action plans that incorporate individuals with disabilities in an analysis of barriers, workforce utilization, goals and progress reports. Colorado (House Bill 1065, 2021) Massachusetts (House Bill 4569, 2016) and Tennessee (House Bill 0165, 2017) have enacted affirmative action legislation regarding people with disabilities.  

  • Using tax incentives to encourage businesses to hire qualified candidates with disabilities. 

States can adopt tax incentive policies to encourage private sector business to hire qualified candidates with disabilities. Delaware (Title 30 §20B-102) provides a tax credit to employers in the state that hire people with disabilities referred by the state vocational rehabilitation agency. The tax credit is equal to 10 percent of the employee’s gross wages (not to exceed $1,500) paid by the qualified employer throughout that employee’s sustained employment during the taxable year. The Maryland Disability Employment Tax Credit allows employers to claim an amount equal to 30 percent of up to the first $9,000 of wages paid during the first and second years of employment.  

  • Offering tax credits for providing employment supports and accessibility. 

States may also provide tax credits for employment supports such as physical building barrier removal, workplace accommodations, information and communication technology, childcare and transportation. Arizona enacted House Bill 2214 (2017) allowing for the subtraction of eligible “business access expenditures” paid or incurred by a taxpayer in the retrofitting of real property to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Under the Maryland Disability Employment Tax Credit, employers can claim $900 per year against transportation or child care costs for each qualifying employee during the first two years of employment. 

Additional examples of how states are engaging the private sector in hiring and supporting people with disabilities can be found here.