“We're passionate about helping people with disabilities find their place in the workplace."

Statistics show that unemployment for individuals with disabilities has been increasing the past several years across the nation. The state of Delaware has bucked that trend.

Jocelyn Langrehr, the deputy director of the Department of Labor’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, said that was one reason to celebrate during National Disability Employment Awareness Month – which marked its 70th anniversary in October.

Langrehr said 2014 data from the American Community Survey showed the national average of unemployment for people with disabilities between the ages of 18- and 64 years old was 15.4 percent, while Delaware’s percentage stood at 13.7 percent. There are 56,600 working-age people with disabilities living in Delaware.

Langrehr attributes the state’s success helping many of them find employment to hard work by the organization’s counselors and support staff and perseverance by the workers themselves.

“We're passionate about helping people with disabilities find their place in the workplace,” Langrehr said. “We are ‘People first’ at the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. That’s one of the biggest reasons that our unemployment statistic for Delaware is lower than the national average.

“To me, I love that. Sometimes when people are working they tend to wonder, ‘Am I making a difference?’ That unemployment statistic is point blank, so yeah, we are making a difference here in Delaware.”

Langrehr was quick to tip her cap to Gov. Jack Markell, an avid proponent for providing employment opportunities for workers with disabilities.

Markell said that has been one of the top initiatives of his administration.

“We know that when barriers prevent a significant segment of our population from participating in our workforce, talent is being wasted and our economic competitiveness suffers,” Markell said. “Businesses that are leading in hiring people with disabilities understand this effort isn’t about charity.”

While Delaware has managed to keep the number of individuals with disabilities in the workplace relatively steady, national figures are a cause for concern.

According to a report by the American Institutes for Research, labor-force participation among Americans with disabilities dropped from 25 percent in 2007 to around 16 percent in 2014. The nine-percentage-point decline is almost three times greater than the drop for all adults ages 21 to 65 over the same time.

Langrehr did note that many disabilities are difficult to see. Some of them might not fall into a particular category such as hearing, vision, cognitive or ambulatory disabilities.

But that doesn’t stop her organization from trying to connect potential workers to employers.

Langrehr said employment specialists in four offices statewide worked with more than 600 employers last year. Last year the organization helped to employ more than 1,100 people for more than 90 days.

“At DVR, we say just because you might have a disability doesn’t mean you can’t work,” Langrehr said. “We will work with you and our counselors and staff will spend a lot of time trying to access what you’re good at and what the best fit might be for you.”

The 34 full-time counselors provide individualized service to caseloads that often grow to more than 200 individuals. It is a busy occupation.

“We work with high school-age students through seniors,” Langrehr said. “Basically, if someone wants to work and has a disability that results in a barrier to employment, we want to help that person achieve their vocational goal that aligns within that person’s career pathway to employment.”

Meanwhile, Markell has continued to build support for disabled individuals. He was 2012-13 chairman of the National Governors Association, where he spearheaded the effort to increase job opportunities for individuals with disabilities.

In 2012, Markell signed legislation making hiring workers with disabilities the first option by law at Delaware agencies that provide services to people with disabilities.

In the summer of 2013, Markell released the National Blueprint on Increasing Employment of People with Disabilities.

Titled “A Better Bottom Line: Employing People with Disabilities,” its goal is to increase the percentage of people with disabilities employed across the country -- not just in Delaware.

Specifically, Markell’s initiative focused on the role that both state governments and businesses play in improving employment outcomes and creating more opportunities for people with disabilities.

The blueprint outlines options for states to align their policies, programs and services for enhanced access to the workplace, including to:

♦ make employing people with disabilities part of the broader state workforce strategy;

♦ find and support more businesses who hire them;

♦ ensure states are model employers of those with disabilities;

♦ prepare youth with disabilities for the workforce; and

♦ make the best use of scarce resources to advance employment opportunities.

Markell said, “We intentionally wrote this document as a ‘blueprint’ to map out practical actions governors can take, not as a report that will sit on a shelf.

“It includes concrete examples for state policymakers as they work to advance employment opportunities for people with disabilities, which is a goal that every governor can support.”

Markell said he sees it as “a must” to employ individuals with disabilities.

“There are so many people with disabilities who have the time, talent and desire to make meaningful contributions to interested employers,” he said. “What matters is what they have to offer and the tremendous impact this will have on their overall well-being and on the bottom line of the businesses that employ them.”