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Community Development

Equal (Economic) Opportunity for the Disability Community

This article is part of a continuing interview series that spotlights important views from experts in the community and economic development field.

According to the nonprofit National Disability Institute (NDI), about one in five Americans has some kind of disability. In part given the size and the anticipated growth of this segment of the population, many financial institutions and community organizations focused on asset building have teamed with NDI to develop programs and services to address the needs of the disability community. Since 2005, NDI has been working on a singular objective: to build a better economic future for all individuals with disabilities.

Emily Mitchell, senior community and economic development manager at the Atlanta Fed, spoke with NDI executive director Michael Morris about promising practices related to economic inclusion and employment that the organization has seen in cities around the country and what it anticipates as future challenges.

Emily Mitchell: Thank you for joining me today. Could you start by telling me about NDI and some specific issues on which you are focused? Also, what are the key priorities for NDI's efforts in the Southeast?

Michael Morris: Through collaboration with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the U.S. Departments of Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services, and some 900 partners at a community level in more than 100 cities nationwide, NDI has promoted strategies to bring people with disabilities into the economic mainstream. Our focus is on work, saving, and asset building that create individual paths to economic stability. Through training and technical assistance, program development, and efforts to inform public policy, NDI is changing thinking and behavior of its target audience: banks, credit unions, disability-related organizations, government at all levels, and people with disabilities.

The Southeast region has the highest poverty rates in the country, so we've been particularly focused on increasing understanding and collaboration between the asset-building and the disability communities. We view the Southeast as an important region for piloting new ideas and as a living laboratory for work in education and training (for instance, a first-in-the-nation financial education pilot program for students with intellectual disabilities at the University of North Florida) or special event concepts such as NDI's asset development summits or financial fitness fairs. Asset summits bring a small group of leaders in the disability and asset-building communities together to develop a common agenda for sustainable change. These summits were pioneered in the Southeast and have been replicated in 25 cities across the country.

States throughout the Southeast have participated in NDI's national signature project, the Real Economic Impact Tour. The tour has expanded services to people with disabilities by promoting full inclusion and increasing capacities of tax coalitions and asset development groups to better serve persons with disabilities at a local, state, and national level.

Mitchell: What are some successes in overcoming barriers to effective inclusion of persons with disabilities in asset development programs? Please provide a few examples from around the country.

Morris: Let me begin by noting that NDI's approach to this work has been to encourage the design of programs, services, and products so that they are responsive to the needs and interests of all persons, which is to say that we don't advocate for separate initiatives or efforts for persons with disabilities.

In partnership with tax coalitions across the country, NDI's Real Economic Impact Tour has helped the IRS VITA program expand its engagement of people with disabilities. In the past eight years, we have helped more than 1.5 million people with disabilities access more than $1.4 billion in tax refunds as a first step in a conversation about planning for a better economic future.

In our work with the VITA program, NDI is proud of our work with the deaf tax pilot, which started in 2008. This program allows trained persons who are deaf or hard of hearing to assist other individuals who are deaf with tax preparation work, communicating via video relay using American Sign Language. Additionally, the success of this program has resulted in a “Virtual VITA” program that was piloted this year in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area with intake sites around the state of Florida. The program allows individuals to go to a satellite location using this technology. This program opens up new options for those in rural locations and for people who may lack access to public transportation.

We have also created financial education programs for students with disabilities and improved opportunities for people with disabilities to participate in IDA (individual development accounts) or matched savings programs.

Mitchell: Are there certain segments of the disability population that may experience more challenges related to asset building about which our partners should be particularly mindful? And what programs or policies have been effective in addressing these needs?

Morris: We do know that people with sensory disabilities (i.e., sight and hearing) have had challenges accessing and participating with mainstream financial institutions. But that is changing, with the industry becoming more responsive and developing innovative ways to incorporate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements. Financial institutions are increasingly offering sensitivity training to branch staff, and there's now more online access for customers. These are just two ways we've seen improvements.

That said, NDI's focus is to support people with disabilities across the full spectrum of disabilities. We have educated banks and credit unions about the importance of affordable and accessible products for our target audience and the benefits of being banked and avoiding predatory lending practices. In fact, NDI has worked with every major financial institution, either directly or indirectly, to educate and support their efforts in responding to persons with disabilities. At a federal level, we continue to promote raising asset limits for continued eligibility for various public benefits, including Social Security, Medicaid, and food assistance.

Mitchell: As you know, our team at the Atlanta Fed has been focused on workforce development and chronic unemployment issues, and we recently cohosted a national conference on this topic. What trends have you seen with respect to employment among persons with disabilities, and what has changed since you started this work?

Morris: NDI began its work in an era of great prosperity in 2005, generally speaking. However, despite that prosperity, people with disabilities weren't part of the economic mainstream. In fact, that was one of the reasons for starting NDI. Now in 2012, we have a different economic picture. At NDI, we have observed that the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is more than triple the national average, and persons with disabilities were some of the first to lose their jobs in the layoffs of the economic recession. We also know that persons with disabilities are two times more likely to be living in poverty.

But there is some good news on this front. Since the passage of the ADA in 1990, we have observed more students with disabilities going to college and more employers have become proactive in recruiting and hiring talented individuals with disabilities. A key strategy is paid internships and the creation of affinity groups for employees with disabilities to advance peer support for retention and career advancement.

Mitchell: Do you have any suggestions for increasing outreach and education strategies for employers?

Morris: Recently, we participated in an interesting project in New Jersey, funded by the Kessler Foundation, where we worked with the credit unions in the state to create a customized curriculum and a related internship program for hiring persons with disabilities. To date, the program has seen half of the participants hired upon completing their internship for a variety of jobs across all credit unions in the state. We hope to bring that program to other states, and customize it for banks in the future.

I would also like to suggest a few other opportunities for all employers: start younger with mentorship and internship opportunities for youth with disabilities. And from a workforce development standpoint—at both a community and corporate level—I think we must continue to do market research on what services and products might need to be customized to be responsive to persons with disabilities.

Mitchell: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Morris: In regard to the disability community, we are talking about a large market segment in the Southeast and across the country. More than 54 million people in the United States have a disability—the disability community is not homogeneous. In fact, it is very diverse in terms of age, ethnicity, income level, and other metrics. NDI will continue to engage the financial sector to enhance existing strategies and develop new ways to effectively respond to this sector. Banks have been strong partners at the local level, specifically with coalitions that have helped people access the earned income tax credit. In many communities, this has prompted a broader discussion about how best to help people stabilize their financial position, including developing a core set of skills around money management and understanding options related to savings and investing. This comprehensive conversation raises the understanding and sensitivity of all organizations involved (including these financial institution partners) around the issues faced by persons with disabilities.