Evolving CSG, Dept. of Defense Initiative Continues Enhancing Accessibility for U.S. Military, Overseas Voters

By Morgan Thomas

The Overseas Voting Initiative continues to conduct research, analyze Uniformed Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act voter data, and cultivate dialogue surrounding innovative strategies to enhance voter accessibility through the act. 

The OVI is a collaboration between The Council of State Governments and the Department of Defense Federal Voting Assistance Program focused on improving voting access for U.S. military and overseas voters. 

Service members, their families and other U.S. citizens residing overseas face many challenges when trying to obtain and cast their ballots in U.S. elections. Service members deployed to remote areas, students studying abroad or government workers working abroad in difficult-to-access locations must overcome hurdles to exercise their right to vote. Mail operations can be intermittent or even nonexistent in some locations. Power, and therefore access to electronic communications, can also be unreliable. 

Voters facing any of these challenges are protected under the Uniformed Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, which is also commonly referred to as UOCAVA. UOCAVA was enacted by Congress in 1986 and provides U.S. citizens and their eligible family members a legal basis for absentee voting requirements. Each U.S. citizen abroad faces unique challenges, making it difficult for both the voter and election officials. 

The Overseas Voting Initiative works with local and state election officials who comprise its OVI Working Group. The Working Group is divided into subgroups that focus on specific areas of interest centered on improving voting accessibility for UOCAVA voters. Through these subgroups, the OVI has conducted research, promoted technology and policies, informed state policymakers about overseas voting issues, and shared best practices with state and local election officials and other stakeholders. Some critical areas of research include: 

UOCAVA balloting solutions. 

Improving communications and connections between UOCAVA citizens and their election offices. 

Making voter registration easier for UOCAVA citizens. 

Considering how DOD digital signature capabilities can facilitate document signing by certain UOCAVA voters. 

Examining how the ballot duplication process can be improved through transparent standard operating procedures and new technologies. 

In addition to these areas of research, the OVI has also created a data standard for the Election Administration and Voting Survey, or EAVS, Section B Data. This standard allows election officials and the Federal Voting Assistance Program to conduct a deeper analysis of UOCAVA voter behavior. The Working Group analyzes and makes recommendations for changes to EAVS Section B Data to improve the survey to serve the voters and election officials better. 

Now in its 10th year, the OVI has conducted more than 27 Working Group meetings in 14 states and U.S. territories, one U.S. Embassy, and visited 11 military installations. In early spring 2024, the OVI will be releasing a series of modules identifying best practices for communicating with military service members, their families and citizens living abroad. 

2023 Toll Fellowship Welcomes Top Leaders, Strengthens Bipartisan Bonds

The Council of State Governments welcomed 43 state leaders from across the nation to its headquarters in Lexington, Kentucky, to participate in the 2023 CSG Henry Toll Fellowship — the nation’s premier leadership development program for state government officials.

The program’s name honors Henry Wolcott Toll, a former Colorado state senator and the driving force behind the formation of CSG in 1933.

Each year, the Toll Fellowship program gathers the nation’s top officials from all three branches of government to engage in an intense leadership boot camp and forge connections that span political affiliation. This year’s class was challenged through various development sessions while also being encouraged to build relationships with fellow lawmakers. For Georgia Rep. Shelly Hutchinson, this aspect of the program was one of the most important.

I will definitely be taking back the relationships. That, to me, is one of the most important parts of politics. All of the people that I’ve met, and even the people at CSG that I have not met, are the ones I can call on when I need something.

Rep. Shelly Hutchinson, Georgia

When asked about his biggest takeaway from the program, Maryland Sen. Cory McCray echoed Hutchinson’s sentiment.

“The relationship building and being able to understand some of the dynamics that are happening across the states,” McCray said.  “I think the exercise from day two played an important role in that. We had to move as a team with a number of instructions. As it got more rigorous, and we accomplished that goal, it went into a second goal that got even more challenging and required even more work as a team. It’s a great program, a great opportunity and I’m glad to be here.”

Lorna Patches, CSG deputy director of membership and leadership development, said that regardless of experience or title, there is benefit in the Toll Fellowship for all state leaders.  

“The Henry Toll Fellowship is a foundational program for state leaders forging connections across states, parties and experience levels,” Patches said.  “Our class members come together for personal exploration and creative problem solving. By doing so, these individuals form bonds that will last a lifetime and carry them back to their careers in public service and beyond. The Council of State Governments is honored to provide this development opportunity each and every year to those who are working so hard for their constituents.” 

The program is designed to draw leaders out of their comfort zone and challenge them in unique ways. However, through that shared vulnerability, Tolls connect with one another on a deeper level, regardless of which side of the aisle they support.

“I appreciate the fact that we can come together as democrats, republicans or independents and we can really talk to each other and get to know each other in an unthreatening environment,” said Washington Rep. Cindy Ryu.

The 2023 Toll Fellowship class joined a network of alumni including five state or territory house speakers, three sitting state Supreme Court justices, 10 sitting members of Congress, five sitting governors and more than 200 Toll alumni currently serving as state or territorial legislators.

Since 1986, there have been more than 1,350 graduates of the Toll Fellowship.

About The Council of State Governments
The Council of State Governments is our nation’s only organization serving all three branches of state government. CSG is a region-based forum that fosters the exchange of insights and ideas to help state officials shape public policy. This offers unparalleled regional, national and international opportunities to network, develop leaders, collaborate and create problem-solving partnerships. For more information about The Council of State Governments, visit csg.org.

Interstate Teaching Mobility Compact Enacted Allowing Streamlined Licensing Pathways for Educators in 10 States

Licensing for the roughly 3.7 million teachers in the country has historically been a system with unclear barriers between states, making it difficult for educators to relocate and attain a teaching license in another state. Military spouses are particularly impacted by these limitations — they move residences between states frequently as their spouses are relocated to various posts and are often met with licensing barriers.

Recognizing these obstacles, in 2020 the Department of Defense entered into a cooperative agreement with The National Center for Interstate Compacts at The Council of State Governments. Authorized by Congress in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, the cooperative agreement provides funding for the development of up to ten new occupational licensure compacts. A compact for teachers was a priority for the Department of Defense.

Model legislation to join the Interstate Teacher Mobility Compact was released to states in November 2022 after more than a year of development, public comment and stakeholder review. In June, Oregon joined nine other states — Colorado, Utah, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Kansas, Florida, Alabama, Nebraska and Nevada — in fully enacting the compact legislation. With the addition of this tenth state, the compact became active — the fastest occupational licensure compact to do so.

“A military spouse shouldn’t have to choose between supporting their family and pursuing their profession. Thankfully, states are working together to ensure they won’t have to,” said David Adkins, executive director/CEO of The Council of State Governments.

“The ten states that have already enacted the Interstate Teacher Mobility Compact are reducing barriers to mobility for licensed teachers, and that’s good news to the many teachers in military families who will move to those states. CSG is proud to work with state officials and honored to partner with the U.S. Department of Defense to help create new tools to support military families. We look forward to continuing to be a resource for the ITMC Commission and its member states.”

Maintaining state sovereignty is one of the cornerstones of the Interstate Teacher Mobility Compact. The compact does not alter member states’ ability to regulate the teaching profession or teacher licensure. Member states take on some responsibility to grant licenses to out-of-state teachers, but any standing pathways to teacher licensure within the state will remain in place.

Addressing Teacher Shortages

While districts across the country are facing widespread teacher shortages, the Teacher Mobility Compact streamlines the systems of licensure mobility in member states.

“Teachers who relocated can find it difficult to navigate the waters of license issuance in a new state,” said Jimmy Adams, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification. “Many of these are professionals with years of experience who decide to leave the profession because of the barriers they confront.”

The teaching compact utilizes a different model than other interstate occupational licensure compacts. Compact member states submit licenses that are eligible for the compact and meet a set of criteria outlined in the legislation. To be eligible, a license must require a bachelor’s degree and completion of a state-approved program for teacher licensure like a teacher preparation program at a college or university. Teachers holding a compact-eligible license can apply for licensure in another member state and receive the closest equivalent license without submitting additional materials, taking state-specific exams or completing additional coursework.

This compact maintains each member state’s standards while recognizing the professional who holds this high-level license,” Adams said. “This compact will keep many teachers in the profession who may otherwise leave.”

Next Steps

Later this year, the compact member states will nominate their commissioners and the first meeting of the Interstate Teacher Mobility Compact Commission will be held to draft the bylaws and rules of the compact.

Currently, several states are still considering legislation to join the teaching compact. Those who join will also be included in this meeting if the legislation is passed before the first convening.

For more information about the Interstate Teacher Mobility Compact or to view the model legislation, visit teachercompact.org. To learn more about the National Center for Interstate Compacts and other occupational licensure compacts, visit compacts.csg.org.

About Occupational Licensure Interstate Compacts

Occupational licensure compacts create reciprocity between states while maintaining the quality and safety of services and protecting state sovereignty. Compacts result in a more efficient distribution of licensed workers by supporting practitioner mobility.

In addition to its work with the Department of Defense, the CSG National Center for Interstate Compacts led the development of interstate compacts for physicians, nurses, emergency medical services personnel, physical therapists, psychologists, occupational therapists, licensed professional counselors and audiologists/speech-language pathologists. More than 40 states and territories have adopted at least one of the compacts and over half have adopted three or more.

About CSG and the National Center for Interstate Compacts

Founded in 1933, The Council of State Governments is the nation’s only organization serving all three branches of state government. CSG is a region-based forum that fosters the exchange of insights and ideas to help state officials shape public policy. This offers unparalleled regional, national and international opportunities to network, develop leaders, collaborate and create problem-solving partnerships. Learn more at csg.org.

CSG has more than 75 years of experience promoting multi-state problem solving and advocating the role of the states in determining their respective futures. The National Center for Interstate Compacts is a policy program developed by CSG to assist states in developing interstate compacts, which have proved to be an effective mechanism for states to jointly problem solve. Learn more at compacts.csg.org.

Indiana Leverages ARPA Funding to Advance Competitive Integrated Employment Opportunities for People with Disabilities

By Enmanuel Gomez Antolinez and Elise Gurney 

States are increasingly leading a transition away from sheltered workshops – where businesses employ people with disabilities at less than minimum wage and in settings that primarily or exclusively employ individuals with disabilities – and toward competitive integrated employment (CIE). While thirteen states have passed legislation to eliminate subminimum wages, Indiana is taking a unique approach by leveraging American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) dollars to transition employers away from sheltered workshops and advance CIE. The goal is to increase CIE for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the state from 23% to 38% by 2027. This equates to a 68% increase in the number of individuals with IDD in the state employed in CIE by 2027. 

Indiana’s Division of Disability and Rehabilitative Services (DDRS) has used ARPA funding to support the transition away from sheltered work and advance CIE outcomes through three main strategies: 

Assessing and redesigning DDRS policies, procedures, systems and services to better support CIE; 

Supporting and encouraging providers to transition away from sheltered work to CIE; and 

Facilitating statewide transformations to enhance CIE outcomes. 

Assessing and Redesigning DDRS Policies, Procedures, Systems and Services 

DDRS has utilized ARPA funding to broadly reassess and redesign elements of its current operations to better support CIE. To do so, it has partnered with the National Association of State Directors of Developmental Disabilities Services’ Supported Employment Leadership Network, which has helped DDRS facilitate self-assessment and revision of DDRS systems, services and supports for CIE. Assessment and redesign efforts include:   

Redesigning waiver services and supports to encourage, facilitate and maintain CIE. DDRS identified significant support needs gaps not covered by its existing prevocational operations (sheltered work), ongoing job supports and workplace personal care attendant services. It is therefore redesigning the state’s 1915c Medicaid waivers for individuals with disabilities to establish a wider, more flexible array of employment services (such as career exploration, benefits counseling, job development and other employment supports) and refocusing existing services to better support an individual’s CIE goals. 

Developing policies and procedures to support coordination across DDRS. DDRS has three Bureaus that serve individuals with disabilities and their families throughout an individual’s life. Due to distinct federal program rules and oversight, these three Bureaus have historically worked in isolation. DDRS is working to align services and employment supports across the Bureaus so that consumers have a seamless point of entry and experience across DDRS and so that Bureaus can better coordinate program support and braided funding for CIE. 

Developing and refining IT systems to improve customers’ ability to drive and engage in CIE services and supports. This aligns with broader DDRS efforts to make the individual the primary driver of their services and supports. To accomplish this, DDRS engaged in a multi-year-project to consolidate their current IT systems into a portal that allows state personnel, independent case managers and providers and eventually individuals to access, provide input and share information regarding the individual’s trajectory plan, services and support system. The final version of the portal will allow individuals to access their records and take ownership of their services and supports. 

Developing a reimbursement system that incentivizes a team approach and rewards CIE outcomes. DDRS believes meaningful advancement of statewide CIE goals will only be realized when all parts of the system understand their roles and commit to shared responsibility in supporting CIE outcomes. To that end, DDRS is planning a systematic review of state policy to incentivize providers supporting these shared outcomes. This means revising provider expectations on collaborating with other service system providers and state program personnel when providing and planning service delivery to individuals. It also means evaluating the need for targeted incentives in current Home- and Community-Based Services waivers and Vocational Rehabilitation reimbursement structures and exploring value-based payment methodologies to drive focus on CIE outcomes.   

Supporting and Encouraging Providers to Transition to CIE 

In Indiana, 37 employment providers hold 14(c) certificates in sheltered workshop settings. To support these providers in transitioning away from sheltered work and in expanding their capacity to provide customized CIE services and supports, DDRS launched two two-year collaboratives in July 2022. 

The first collaborative is designed to support providers who currently operate a sheltered work program in the transition to CIE, whereas the second is designed to support improved CIE services for providers that transitioned away from a sheltered work model within the last 24 months.  

A variety of resources and supports are made available to providers throughout the two-year period to transform their business operations and/or enhance their capacity to support CIE. This includes: 

Virtual and in-person trainings from national experts;  

Technical assistance; and  

Opportunities to receive peer mentorship and learn from one another. 

Providers also receive a $50,000 stipend per year of full participation in the collaborative. Finally, collaborative participants are eligible to apply for a transformation grant of up to $400,000 to support their movement away from a sheltered work model and to develop innovative strategies to support CIE outcomes. 

Strategies for supporting the transition to and improvement of CIE services include: 

Engaging in a value stream mapping process, which helps providers identify what customers want and need and helps streamline processes to create a flexible, person-centered CIE service system; 

Developing a roadmap and setting goals to transform services within three to five years; 

Establishing partnerships with families to smooth the employment process and improve outcomes, including by raising family expectations that CIE is possible; and 

Engaging employers in informational interviews to create a pipeline of CIE opportunities. 

Facilitating Statewide Transformations to Enhance CIE Outcomes 

Finally, DDRS has effectively engaged leaders and entities across Indiana to more broadly impact attitudes and systems relating to sheltered work and CIE. This includes: 

Hosting an annual Employment Summit for leaders across agencies and systems to focus on improving CIE outcomes for individuals with disabilities; 

Engaging the Indiana Department of Education and school systems to change the narrative and expectations regarding post-secondary pathways for individuals with disabilities; and 

Collaborating with other entities – such as the Indiana Department of Workforce Development and advocacy organizations – to improve CIE outcomes for individuals with disabilities. 

Other State Approaches to Eliminating Sheltered Workshops 

Indiana is unique in using ARPA funds to transition away from sheltered work (though other states are also including people with disabilities in their ARPA-funded economic recovery efforts). Other states have eliminated subminimum wage and sheltered workshops through legislation, regulations and Executive Orders. For example: 

The Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development adopted regulations in 2018 repealing authority to pay subminimum wages for workers with disabilities. 

Hawaii enacted Senate Bill 793 in 2021, which repeals the exemption from the minimum wage requirement for persons with disabilities. 

Illinois Governor Pritzker issued Executive Order No. 2021-26 in 2021, which specifies that all current and future State Use program contracts must provide for payment of no less than minimum wage for all employees performing work on the contract. 

For more information about Indiana’s allocation of ARPA funds, please visit: https://www.in.gov/ocra/ARPA/#:~:text=The%20American%20Rescue%20Plan%20Act,billion%20given%20to%20Indiana’s%20communities

This publication was funded by the Office of Disability Employment Policy, U.S. Department of Labor through the State Exchange on Employment & Disability. This document, and any other organization’s linked webpages or documents, do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Office of Disability Employment Policy, U.S. Department of Labor, nor does the mention of trade names, commercial products or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government. 

Mental Health Matters: A Series of National Online Dialogues on Workforce Mental Health Policies

By Elise Gurney

The State Exchange on Employment & Disability (SEED), a U.S. Department of Labor Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) initiative, launched a series of four online dialogues to explore and advance workforce mental health policies. Through April 3, you are invited to join these conversations by submitting ideas, as well as commenting and voting on ideas submitted by others, on four priority topic areas:

Benefits policies that meet the needs of those with mental health conditions.

Access to workplace care and supports for those with mental health conditions and reducing associated social stigmas.

Mental health provider and service disparities in underserved communities.

Behavioral health workforce shortages and the establishment of state resource systems.

These online public engagement events will build upon and inform the work of the Mental Health Matters: National Task Force on Workforce Mental Health Policy, convened by SEED, to develop resources and policy frameworks that effectively support workers’ mental health needs and bolster the behavioral health care work force. To learn more about the dialogues and participate in the event, visit https://ePolicyWorks.com/MentalHealthMatters/.

Arkansas Pilots State as a Model Employer Policies within Individual State Agencies

By Sean Slone, Senior Policy Analyst

State as a Model Employer (SAME) initiatives refer to policies and practices states engage in to increase the recruitment, hiring, retention, and advancement of people with disabilities within state government. SAME efforts allow states to advance their diversity, equity, and inclusion goals and serve as examples for private sector employers to follow. While 20 states and Washington D.C. have adopted SAME policies statewide, other states have focused on efforts within specific state agencies. One such state is Arkansas.

As a 2020 equal employment opportunity report to the state legislature demonstrates, Arkansas state government and multiple state agencies have supported SAME policies and concepts, although no formal statewide efforts have yet emerged. Nevertheless, the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration (DFA) moved forward in 2022 to pursue a SAME effort on its own. According to Jonathan Taylor, Executive Director of the Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities, DFA has established an initial goal that 10% of its employees will be people with disabilities and is reevaluating and modifying its hiring processes to meet that goal. If successful, the department’s efforts could be something other agencies emulate, including those that have struggled to implement such policies in the past.

Strategies to Increase Employment of People with Disabilities within DFA

DFA’s Diversity and Inclusion team has agreed to four specific steps designed to make hiring processes more inclusive and help DFA reach its 10% goal.

(1) Accessible Job Descriptions

DFA is conducting a full accessibility review of job descriptions. This includes looking at language in entry-level state government job descriptions that indicate a successful candidate must have a certain number of years of job experience, which might dissuade literal thinkers – including individuals on the autism spectrum – from applying. DFA will instead adjust job descriptions to consider and give weight to academic and volunteer experience.

To be inclusive, job descriptions can also clearly indicate the essential functions, knowledge and skills, and physical requirements of a job, to help people with disabilities understand whether they are able to perform the essential functions of the job with or without accommodations. The Job Accommodation Network provides additional strategies for developing an inclusive job description.

(2) Inclusive Interview Questions and Evaluations

Arkansas officials convened a working group to talk about how traditional interview questions and evaluation criteria can put people with disabilities at a disadvantage.

For example, questions about abstract concepts can present challenges for literal thinkers, including those with autism spectrum disorder. The Job Accommodation Network instead recommends that questions focus on the applicant’s specific abilities, achievements, and qualities.

Similarly, traditional evaluation criteria may discriminate against individuals with certain disabilities. For example, traditional methods of assessing an applicant’s communication skills – such as based on smoothness of speech – may discriminate against people with speech impediments or ADHD.

While each office within DFA will continue to use its own interview questions, a guide on inclusive interviewing will be provided to department hiring managers. This can address the way interview questions are worded and how applicants are evaluated, to avoid discriminating against job applicants with disabilities.

(3) Hiring Etiquette Training for Staff

Arkansas Rehabilitation Services and Disability Rights Arkansas will conduct a disability etiquette training with the Diversity and Inclusion team at DFA, then expand to other agencies. These trainings will allow hiring managers, supervisors and others to learn about and incorporate policies and procedures to create a more inclusive application, interview and hiring process for individuals with disabilities. Arkansas will incorporate the perspectives of people with disabilities to inform the trainings.

Etiquette trainings can help remove bias in the interview process, by helping staff understand how to interpret certain behaviors. “Most interviewers have been conditioned that if you don’t make eye contact, you’re clearly not interested,” says Taylor. “People with autism often don’t make eye contact. Eye contact is an old paradigm; the new paradigm is [figuring out what] connectivity looks like.”

(4) Preferential Interviewing

DFA uses a point scale in the interview process, and currently veterans receive “bonus points.” Applicants with disclosed disabilities would also receive bonus points under the plan. Preferred interviewing for applicants who disclose a disability is already part of the application process in Arkansas, but the new point scale will allow the department to further prioritize individuals with disabilities in the hiring process.

According to Taylor, DFA’s inclusive hiring initiatives will benefit the department with reduced attrition; a dedicated staffing pipeline; and improved diversity, equity, and inclusion within the agency. In addition, the policies being piloted to hire people with disabilities can be applied to other underrepresented groups. Finally, the initiatives would standardize onboarding processes and establish best practices for all department agencies.

Considerations for States

Other states have taken similar approaches to develop inclusive and accessible hiring practices and to generally become model employers of people with disabilities.

Connecticut, Illinois, Minnesota, and New Jersey have established and pursued goals for increasing the number of people with disabilities employed in state government.

Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Utah, and Virginia have established hiring preferences for people with disabilities.

Kentucky, Maryland,and Vermont have adopted a mandatory interview option for qualified individuals with disabilities.

Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, and Ohio have enacted legislation to provide disability training to public and private sector employers.

For more on state as a model employer policies and practices, The Council of State Governments and the State Exchange on Employment and Disability (SEED) have published a report titled “The State as a Model Employer of People with Disabilities: Policies and Practices for State Leaders,” which includes policy options and state examples from around the country. The SEED website includes a policy curriculum page on SAME.

In addition, states are invited to participate in a new community of practice (CoP) focused on State as a Model Employer initiatives. The CoP meets monthly and includes participants from vocational rehabilitation and other agencies across multiple states, including Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, and South Carolina. SAME leaders have expressed a desire to learn best practices from other states in order to better serve individuals with disabilities. The CoP facilitates this exchange, and brings in subject matter experts, to help each state become an employer of choice for individuals with disabilities. For more information about this initiative, contact [email protected].

Arkansas Looks to Broadband, New Partners to Tackle Rural-Urban Divide in Disability Service Delivery

By Sean Slone, Senior Policy Analyst

Nearly 50 million Americans live in rural areas, where the percentage of people reporting disabilities is highest (17.8%, compared to 12.1% for metropolitan counties). Yet despite the high rate of disability in rural areas, people with disabilities can face significant barriers accessing services and supports, including employment supports. Challenges include long waitlists for Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) services, limited employment options, and lack of transportation and/or broadband to access training and employment opportunities.

Arkansas is one state that has sought to address the challenges faced by people with disabilities living in rural areas and better connect them to employment services, supports, and opportunities. Strategies include expanding broadband access in rural areas, delivering VR services remotely, and leveraging statewide and community partners to better reach individuals with disabilities living in rural areas.

Employment Barriers for People with Disabilities in Rural Areas in Arkansas

A 2021 profile by the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture identifies Arkansas as one of the most rural states in the country; forty-one percent of Arkansas’ population lives in rural areas, compared with 14% of the U.S. population. According to Jonathan Taylor, Executive Director of the Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities, Arkansans with disabilities living in rural areas can face significant barriers to employment in the state. Many experience a four-to-six-month wait to receive VR services, which help them prepare for and attain employment. Once an individual is able to work with a VR client manager, they then struggle finding employment opportunities.

“There are large pockets of the state where in your community, the only employers may be a gas station, a convenience store or a Dollar General,” Taylor said. “In those environments with very low staff, it can be very difficult for somebody with an intellectual or developmental disability to find an environment where they can thrive.”

In addition, there may be limited opportunities for remote work, due to the lack of broadband internet in the state. According to the Federal Communications Commission, only 60% of Arkansans in rural counties live in areas with internet that meets a benchmark download/upload speed. “There are parts of Arkansas where you literally hear that old school dial tone, because that’s all you can get—dial-up [internet]—and it’s unbelievably slow,” said Taylor.

Expanding Broadband and Remote Services and Opportunities

Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson devoted significant resources to expanding broadband access in the state. In 2019, he issued a state broadband plan and created a state broadband office that has awarded nearly $400 million in grants to connect rural parts of the state, utilizing federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and other sources. He also worked with the legislature to commission a study of households underserved by broadband.

In addition to connecting individuals with disabilities in rural areas to remote work opportunities, expanded broadband can help them better access VR services. Taylor said the state’s VR agency, Arkansas Rehabilitation Services (ARS), was able to pivot effectively to providing virtual client management during the pandemic. Taylor feels that more virtual interface options for people with disabilities in rural Arkansas can go a long way in solving both their transportation and service delivery challenges. ARS is expected to upgrade its website in 2023 to provide more options for virtual service delivery.

Working With Other Partners to Reach Rural Communities

In their efforts to provide employment supports and services to more people with disabilities in rural areas, state agencies in Arkansas have started to collaborate and blend and braid funding to expand their collective reach. This includes collaboration between ARS and the state’s Provider-Led Arkansas Shared Savings Entity (PASSE) program, which serves Medicaid clients with complex behavioral health, developmental, or intellectual disabilities. ARS is able to share funding with the PASSEs to reach more rural pockets of the state with Pre-Employment Transition Services (Pre-ETS), which provide students with disabilities the opportunity to prepare for and explore the world of work. The sharing arrangement allows ARS, which can offer services in only a limited number of high schools in the state, to extend its reach to serve more people.

Similarly, ARS is working with Easter Seals Arkansas to extend Pre-ETS to rural areas through its SET for Success program in several central Arkansas school districts. As part of the program, trained professionals work with students to help them navigate the post-high school transition period with workplace readiness training, work-based learning experiences, and other initiatives.

Additional Proposed Strategies

State officials see promise in two other strategies to extend service delivery to people with disabilities living in rural areas: engaging people with disabilities directly to better understand their needs and connect them to each other, and collaborating with non-traditional partners such as churches and faith communities to better reach those with disabilities. 

Taylor said the Arkansas State Rehabilitation Council has started to engage people with disabilities at a high level to talk about the accessibility of ARS offices and services. However, they’re now considering a more concerted effort to build networks within and among smaller rural communities and to connect the individuals who could benefit from services to each other.

As for faith communities, Taylor believes they could be an answer to helping overcome mistrust of government services in some communities.

“There are more churches than anything else, particularly in the smaller communities,” said Taylor. “I certainly see that as key [to reaching individuals with disabilities in rural areas].”

Considerations for States

Other states have also launched initiatives to help deliver employment and related services to people with disabilities in rural areas.

Colorado Senate Bill 17-011 (2017) created a technical demonstration forum to study solutions to improve transportation access for people with disabilities, including those living in rural areas of the state, with an emphasis on providing adequate access to geographically dispersed jobs.

Hawaii Senate Bill 892 (2015)makes appropriations to expand broadband access, in part to “empower people with disabilities and remov[e] barriers that keep them from participating in everyday activities.”

In Idaho, the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation has collaborated with libraries to establish information and referral procedures for serving individuals with disabilities in rural communities, where VR lacks a physical presence.

From 2015-2017, Montana Vocational Rehabilitation and Blind Services contracted with the Rural Institute for Inclusive Communities at the University of Montana to provide Pre-ETS to students with disabilities.

In July 2020, the Tennessee Department of Human Services published a best practice guide to delivering Pre-ETS virtually. It includes practices for partnering with local education agencies, which can aid in delivering virtual services to those in rural areas.

Wyoming addresses rural transportation access needs for workers with disabilities through regional transportation voucher programs operated by Wyoming independent living centers, Wyoming Independent Living Rehabilitation and Wyoming Services for Independent Living, with funding support from state government.

Black History Month: An Interview with Justin Tapp

By: Justin Tapp, Guest Contributor and Abeer Sikder, Policy Analyst

In honor of Black History Month, The Center for Advancing Policy on Employment for Youth (CAPE-Youth) recently discussed intersectionality and disability employment with Justin Tapp, graduate student and disability leader.

Youth and young adults with disabilities (Y&YADs) are a diverse community, in terms of not only disability type, but also race and ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation and socioeconomic status. While Y&YADs face barriers to education, training and employment, those who have intersectional identities may face additional challenges. For example, the jobless rate for Black Americans with disabilities (15.1 percent) in 2021 was higher than the rates for other racial minority groups. Yet Black Y&YADs and other Y&YADs with overlapping identities can also leverage their unique perspectives, strengths and support systems to address these challenges and promote greater inclusion in the workforce, across multiple factors.

Justin Tapp, who was born with Klippel-Feil syndrome and scoliosis, is an individual doing just that. Justin identifies as African American, LGBTQ+ and disabled. He earned a bachelor’s degree in disability studies and political science from the University of Toledo and is currently working toward a master’s degree in science in social administration from Case Western Reserve University. Previously, Justin was a 2019 Policy Fellow at RespectAbility and worked as a Learning Disability Specialist in higher education before taking on his current role at a community health organization.

Recently, Justin discussed his experiences in disability studies, self-advocacy and networking, as well as his thoughts on effective policy for supporting the success of future generations of diverse Y&YADs.

Disability Studies

“I recommend disability studies for a lot of people who have disabilities; it gives you time to self-reflect and analyze how you exist within your environment.”

Justin explains his degree in disability studies “was a theoretical framework of understanding what disability meant” using an intersectional approach that examines disability through medical, social, historical and even cultural viewpoints, such as how it is portrayed in the media.

Justin emphasizes that disability studies programs are not just for individuals interested in working in the disability space. His classmates in these courses included majors in nursing, business, public policy, speech therapy and even music education seeking “a new set of skills and knowledge to look at disability in a certain way that is more universal.”

Synthesizing these perspectives led Justin to promote Universal Design (UD) in work settings, which means that “anyone designing a service should always consider how individuals with disabilities may utilize it.” According to Justin, UD is a way to “construct environments to fill all walks of life to get rid of the social constructs of disability and accommodate all [individuals].”


“As a person with a visible disability…, I need to be explicit about my accommodations and what a ‘reasonable’ accommodation means.”

Justin says Y&YADs entering the workforce should not be afraid of advocating for themselves and should “understand their own worth and what they’re capable of doing, and sometimes teach others and employers what a reasonable accommodation is.”

Justin also understands the importance of advocating for mental health support, because “mental health plays a big part for anyone with an intersectionality in their identity.” He suggests that Y&YADs encourage employers to understand mental health issues to promote greater inclusion of people from all backgrounds.

Networking and Social Supports

“I am lucky in the position I have with my career. It’s because of strong family and friend support.”

Justin stresses that social support is key to success. Family and friends can provide a safety net from “fighting in the arena for your rights.”

Furthermore, he thinks that young adults – particularly recent graduates – should maintain strong networks, because “networking is key in school. The people you meet will be your foundation and should be your go-to support for advice.”

For those without direct support, Justin recommends attending focus groups and diversity initiatives focused on disability inclusion. “Get to know directors and leaders of these initiatives – both outside organizations and groups within your school setting or workplace,” he says.

Advice to Policymakers

State policymakers can help advance opportunities for Y&YADs entering the workforce by engaging youth with disabilities (including those with intersecting social identities) in the policymaking process. “When you are helping a community, you need to bring that community with you to understand what they are facing,” Justin says, adding that he learned this lesson from his social work training. He further highlights the important role of youth voices in designing programs, noting that “sometimes, it takes someone else’s opinions to look in on the situation to get done what needs to get done.”

For more information about policy options for improving employment outcomes for Y&YADs, see CAPE-Youth’s brief, “Addressing the Needs of Youth with Disabilities and Other Intersecting Identities: State Strategies for Program Implementation.”

Disclaimer from Justin Tapp: Any opinions expressed are solely my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer.

The post Black History Month: An Interview with Justin Tapp first appeared on Cape – Youth.

Disability Mentoring: Benefits for Youth with Intersecting Identities

By: Luke Byram

January is National Mentoring Month. While mentoring relationships benefit all youth, they may have a particularly positive impact on youth who face barriers to education and employment—such as youth with disabilities and especially those who may have intersecting identities.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), disability mentoring occurs when a person with a disability provides advice and support to another person, usually someone with a similar disability. Mentoring can be short-term in nature, such as a single-day job shadowing opportunity or career exploration experience, which could occur on National Job Shadow Day on February 2, 2023 or on National Mentoring Day on October 27, 2023. Mentoring could also reflect a more robust ongoing relationship between a mentor and youth with regularly scheduled meetings focused on supporting the youth in planning and achieving their goals. The relationship often focuses on a specific task, such as living independently, recovering from a traumatic event, obtaining employment or transitioning into the workforce. The mentor serves as a role model and provides information and guidance specific to the mentee’s experiences and identified needs.

Research clearly indicates the success of disability mentoring. Mentoring promotes career exploration and helps youth and young adults with disabilities make more informed choices about their academic and employment goals. The National Mentoring Resource Center reviewed 40 studies on mentoring for youth with disabilities and found that having a mentor with the same disability is associated with better employment and career development outcomes, including a stronger academic trajectory, smoother transitions, more well-developed life skills and higher quality of life.

These findings reinforce the benefits of mentoring overall. According to Mentor, mentoring programs help middle and high school students develop essential cognitive and social-emotional skills for school and workplace success. Guider reports similar long-term benefits for marginalized populations, including increased self-esteem and confidence in their ability to achieve goals.

Youth and young adults who have intersecting identities—such as youth of color with disabilities—are particularly vulnerable to discrimination and other barriers and may need tailored mentoring to fit their unique needs. Bernadette Sánchez of DePaul University states that there is a strong need for mentoring youth of color (Black youth in particular) to help them achieve positive academic, social and employment outcomes in the long term.

Hamza Jaka is a person of color and disabled attorney who has experience with these positive benefits from both sides, having been mentored and served as a mentor himself. Recently, CAPE-Youth had the opportunity to speak with him about his mentoring experiences.

Question: In what ways did you benefit by having a mentor?

Jaka: My mentors have always helped me think about my life and what I want, helped me plan out my career and my future and provided a comforting, but firm presence in my life.

Question: What tips, suggestions, recommendations or advice do you have for those considering whether to be mentored?

Jaka: Find a mentor who fits your life. Don’t just take people’s suggestions, and certainly take a mentor’s advice with a grain of salt. It is your life – you need to find someone who fits. Mentors should have hard conversations if you want to have them, but they should not make you feel awful.

Question: In what ways did you benefit by being a mentor yourself?

Jaka: I learned just how much I have grown and the importance of being a presence in someone’s life, without overstating my own experiences.

Question: What tips, suggestions, recommendations or advice do you have for mentors of other youth and young adults with disabilities?

Jaka: Be kind, don’t project [your experiences onto them] and remember your mentee is different from you and doesn’t always need to take your advice. Respect their time as well. Your mentees are awesome people and deserve that respect.

Question: What did you learn through your mentorship relationships?

Jaka: How to keep my promises and share my experiences without living vicariously through other people. Too often mentors bring their own lived experiences into a mentee’s life rather than listening to the mentee.

Question: What challenges did you experience in the mentoring relationship?

Jaka: Finding time to connect! I also would have loved to meet in-person.

Question: What can state policy leaders do to advance disability mentoring for youth and young adults with disabilities at the state level?

Jaka: Fund evidenced-based mentoring programs, make connections between disabled constituents and come to disability events. Also, make it a priority to listen to organizations run by disabled people, especially disabled people of color.

CAPE-Youth offers a number of resources to help state policymakers explore ways to implement programs and services—including mentoring initiatives—that meet the needs of youth and young adults with intersecting identities. Further information about Mentoring Month, including outreach tools and tips, is available at MENTOR