State unveils program urging private sector to hire the disabled

TRENTON – Gov. Chris Christie announced a program today encouraging private-sector employers to hire individuals with disabilities.

The Employment First Initiative will run in conjunction with three departments – Human Services, Labor and Education.

While there are no regulatory mechanisms, Christie said he hopes employers are encouraged to provide more opportunities to this segment of the population.

By talking about such hiring by employers, Christie said, “it puts this in the forefront of their minds.”  

Christie said only about 20.1 percent of individuals with disabilities are working, compared to 69.3 percent of individuals without disabilities.  

“It’s simply not acceptable,” he said.

Christie said he has asked all of the departments to review their policies to make sure those with disabilities get fair consideration and remove any barriers that may hinder their employment opportunities.

Training programs for disabled individuals will be provided by private-sector companies.

He said everyone in society deserves to earn a living and feel personal fulfillment “that can only come from a job.

”The greatest social program is a job,”  Christie said.  

Human Services Commissioner Jennifer Velez was grateful  for the program, saying that this approach views government benefits as a “safety net that supplements employment.”

“It’s just tremendous.  It’s a big day for us.”

She said the initiative will provide “an equal and level playing field.”

Chris Sullivan, a vice president of Merrill Lynch in charge of special needs planning, said at a press conference today he uses interpretive services provided by the Human Services Department to help get his work done.

“It’s been extremely resourceful,” he said.

Several individuals with developmental disabilities were present at the press conference in the Statehouse Thursday morning.

Eighteen months ago, Sullivan said, he was declared legally blind and he reached out to the commission for assistance. The result was that the commission provided him computer software that helps.

“That made my job a lot easier and less stressful,” he said.

He said he’s grateful to the administration for giving individuals with disabilities hope to make up a greater share of the work force.

“People with disabilities want jobs,” he said. “The proof is there.”  

The Department of Human Services (DHS) presently provides an array of education and employment programs through its Divisions of Developmental Disabilities, Disability Services, and Mental Health and Addiction Services and the Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

The Department of Labor and Workforce Development’s (LWD) Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services uses private non-profit and for-profit companies to provide work training, employment counseling, educational advancement, assistive technologies and job placement service to some 27,000 residents with disabilities.

The Education Department will help provide assistance in supplying information on job opportunities available in various communities.

Christie said that the Labor Department will solicit private, non-profit and for-profit employers for work training, job counseling, education and job placement services.

Among other things, the initiative he announced today will continue NJ WorkAbility, a program that offers full health coverage to the working-disabled whose earnings otherwise would make them ineligible for Medicaid. That program already has 9,200 participants.

The state will have contracts with employment agencies through the Divisions of Mental Health and Vocational Rehabilitation. The state said 900 people have been employed through this effort since 2010.

According to Christie, New Jersey is the 14th state to adopt this approach.

State unveils program urging private sector to hire the disabled