By Page Eastin
When people ask me where I work and I tell them that I work in The Iowa Department of Human Rights, I’m often met with looks of intrigue and questions about what my work entails. Some have asked, “Do we still need a Department of Human Rights in 2017?” to which I sometimes answer with a rhetorical question: Is there still discrimination on the basis of race, religion, disability, national origin, sexual orientation, and gender?
I realize now that the title of our agency may be unique, but the work we do is not. Across the country human rights advocates work to close the gap. My work is focused on closing the employment gap for individuals with disabilities. In Iowa, as in many states, we have thousands of individuals with disabilities working in segregated employment settings earning sub-minimum wage, dependent on public benefits, and unaware of the resources and services available to support them with moving into competitive integrated employment.
The unemployment rate of individuals with disabilities is more than double the overall unemployment rate. This crosses over into race as well with people of color making up the majority of individuals with disabilities yet having the lowest rate of successful rehabilitation into employment. My work is largely focused on advising the state’s Vocational Rehabilitation agency (VR) on policies and the provision of quality VR services. In order to meet the needs of individuals with disabilities as well as the needs of businesses, we must have a well-prepared VR services system in place.
The Iowa Department of Human Rights continues to support the Employment 1st philosophy that all individuals, regardless of disability, can work with the right supports and that competitive integrated employment is the first and preferred outcome for publicly funded employment services for individuals with disabilities. This work happens by supporting agencies with policy development, educating leaders and businesses about the benefits of employing a diverse workforce that includes individuals with disabilities, and creating awareness of the resources and services available to support individuals who want to work.
We at Iowa’s Department of Human Rights focus less on policy enforcement and more on partnering with and educating people with disabilities… Our department tries to spread a message of empowerment to individuals with disabilities. Those with disabilities need to know that they can achieve self-sufficiency and that our workforce needs their talents to support our economy. Through countless conversations and initiatives, Iowa has made progress towards competitive integrated employment for all Iowans. We are aligning policies and practices with the Employment 1st philosophy and relying on individuals with disabilities to help us meet our workforce needs. Our goal is to create an Iowa that is equitable, just, accessible, and inclusive for all Iowans, including individuals with disabilities.