In 2016, the Work Matters Task Force, composed of state and federal policymakers, developed  Work Matters: A Framework for States on Workforce Development for People with Disabilities . The framework articulates the precepts, goals, guiding principles and themes governing the treatment of people with disabilities. The framework also contains a collection of policies and practices states can utilize to improve outcomes, including legislation and executive orders. In general, this framework can be used as a guidepost to identify policy options to enhance the recruitment, hiring, advancement and retention of people with disabilities.

Lesson 1 includes the following topics related to disability policy:

This curriculum was developed by Bobby Silverstein as part of the State Exchange on Employment and Disability, a program of the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Disability Employment Policy, and is an extension of the work conducted by the Work Matters Task force. Composed of a bipartisan group of state leaders from all over the U.S., the National Task Force studied the best practices and innovative strategies states have implemented to improve employment opportunities and outcomes for people with disabilities. The resulting report offers state policymakers 13 broad policy options, as well as more than 200 real-life examples of innovative programs and policies that states have successfully implemented to build strong, inclusive workforces. This online curriculum provides additional information on policy areas and provides additional updated state examples.


Historically, policymakers and professionals treated people with disabilities as “defective” and in need of “fixing.”  If a professional couldn’t “fix” a person with a disability, policymakers supported exclusion, segregation, and denial of services and supports. Sometimes the exclusion or isolation was based on malicious treatment resulting in the enactment by policymakers of “ugly laws” barring persons with physical impairments from being seen in public or the exclusion from public education because an individual was “defective” and “produced a nauseating effect” on others.

Sometimes exclusion, isolation, or segregation was based on uninformed assertions by professionals that persons with developmental disabilities were a “menace to society responsible for many, if not all social ills facing society” and therefore should be sterilized or forced into institutions against their wills. Similar assertions were made about persons with psychiatric disabilities resulting in forced institutionalization, seclusion, restraint and unwanted services. Sometimes institutionalization was intended to be compassionate — persons with disabilities were placed in institutions as “charity cases” because they were perceived as vulnerable/dependent persons.

Justice Thurgood Marshall, in Cleburne V. Cleburne Living Center, Inc., characterized our nation’s treatment of persons with developmental disabilities as “grotesque.”


In the 1970s, state and federal policymakers began to reject the old paradigm of disability policy and instead adopt a new paradigm based on the precept that disability is a natural and normal part of the human experience that in no way diminishes a person’s right to fully participate in all aspects of society. The new paradigm focuses on fixing the physical and social environment to provide effective and meaningful opportunity to persons with disabilities; not on fixing persons with chronic or remitting conditions.

In a bipartisan effort, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law in 1990 to address these inequalities. The ADA outlines four goals:

  • Equality of Opportunity
  • Full Participation
  • Independent Living
  • Economic Self-Sufficiency

Equality of Opportunity

Equality of Opportunity has three components:

  • Individualization
    Make decisions affecting an individual based on facts, objective, evidence, state-of-the art science and a person’s needs and preferences; not based on administrative convenience and generalizations, stereotypes, fear and ignorance.
  • Effective and Meaningful Opportunity
    Focus on meeting the needs of all persons who qualify for services and supports, not just the “average” person by providing reasonable accommodations and reasonable modifications to policies, practices and procedures.
  • Inclusion and Integration
    Administer programs in the most integrated setting appropriate for the individual (i.e., the presumption is that a person who qualifies for a public program must receive services in an inclusive setting with necessary support services and the burden of proof is on the government agency to demonstrate why inclusion is not appropriate to meet the unique needs of the individual) and administer programs to avoid unnecessary and unjustified isolation and segregation (i.e., do not make a person give up his/her right to interact with nondisabled persons in order to receive the services and supports).

Full Participation

Provide for active and meaningful involvement of persons with disabilities in decisions affecting them specifically (e.g., right to choose and refuse particular services and supports) as well as in the development of policies of general applicability i.e., at the systems/institutional level. (“Nothing about us without us”) This means policies, practices, and procedures must provide for real, informed choice, self-determination, empowerment, self-advocacy, person-centered planning and budgeting.

Independent Living

Recognize independent living as a legitimate outcome of public policy and provide for independent living skills development, necessary long-term services and supports such as assistive technology devices and services, personal assistance services and cash assistance.

Economic Self-Sufficiency

Recognize economic self-sufficiency as a legitimate outcome of public policy and provide support systems providing employment-related services and supports and cash assistance with work incentives (make work pay).


Disability can develop at any point during an individual’s lifetime and have varying impacts. As such, state agencies may want to consider ensuring that service delivery is relevant for individuals of all ages, is inclusive of all types of disabilities and maximizes the strengths and abilities of the individual. States may also want to consider providing a centralized systems navigation process so that people with disabilities and their families have a place to ask questions and get answers about rights, responsibilities, services and supports.

Successful disability policy embraces the “nothing about us without us” principle. Individuals with disabilities, alongside families, advocates and champions from agencies, education, business and communities, may want to consider engaging throughout the policymaking process at all levels. This includes increasing the actual participation of people with disabilities at the highest levels of state government.

People with disabilities are underutilized in our workforce and frequently experience social and economic disadvantage. There is strong rationale for including people with disabilities in public policy efforts targeting other under-represented groups like veterans, women and minorities.

People with disabilities have valuable and unique contributions to make. State disability employment initiatives have the best chance at success when employers are motivated to hire people with disabilities, not because they have to or because it’s the right thing to do, but because they recognize that disability inclusion helps boost the bottom line through increased innovation, creativity and productivity.


State policymakers may want to consider:

Leading by example

Ensuring that state agencies become model employers and using state financial resources to support model employers in the private sector. This includes requiring state contractors to proactively employ people with disabilities, offering financial incentives to businesses to hire people with disabilities and providing ongoing supports to businesses to help them retain employees who may acquire disabilities.

Including universal design principles

seeking to ensure accessibility and usability to the greatest extent possible for all people, in the earliest development phases of all state government policies, programs and practices, rather than retrofitting the policy after the fact.

Adopting robust reporting efforts, including establishing performance goals, metrics for measurement and data collection processes, to help inform policymaking

considering developing strategies to encourage individuals with disabilities to self-identify and voluntarily disclose disability status to employers and service providers.

Increasing coordination and collaboration, including blending and braiding of services and funding across agencies and levels of government

ensuring that competitive integrated employment is the priority or presumed outcome for people with disabilities, including individuals with the most significant disabilities. Policymakers may want to consider adopting policies that eliminate service delivery silos and facilitate cooperation and coordination across all relevant state agencies and systems.

Requiring accountability from the highest levels of government

identifying high-level officials or departments responsible for providing oversight on policy implementation and reporting, as well as addressing, the concerns of people with disabilities

Including external and internal focus on disability awareness, including disability etiquette,

in all state government policies, programs, practices and disability employment initiative

Identifying existing state programs and systems

that can be easily adapted to include people with disabilities

Adopting best practices and lessons learned from similar state initiatives

targeting other underserved populations to inform initiatives for people with disabilities

Extending diversity and inclusion (affirmative action) policies applicable to race, national origin and gender to include disability for state agencies

and businesses contracting with state government

Using existing mentorship models

to connect business champions supporting disability employment with employers interested in beginning disability hiring initiatives