A woman with a disability working in a factory.

The Institute on Community Integration and University of Massachusetts Boston received a $3 million grant from the Minnesota Department of Human Services to design and implement a statewide strategy for connecting Minnesotans with disabilities to better jobs and higher pay. 

Designed to help organizations move away from supporting employment that pays subminimum wages, the Minnesota Transformation Initiative (MTI) Technical Assistance Center will design and implement plans to assist nearly two dozen service providers as they expand their customized, integrated employment services. MTI will provide peer-mentoring strategies for job seekers with disabilities and for organizations, along with progress and quality assessments. 

“There has been legislative momentum at both the federal and state levels for ending subminimum wages, and this work represents Minnesota’s commitment to being ready for a change,” said Danielle Mahoehney, a community living and employment specialist at the Institute. 

An app designed to help individuals make the leap to competitive employment will be developed as part of the grant. The team also will provide outreach and support to families of people with disabilities from diverse backgrounds to assist them as they transition to the new system.  

“Providers are hearing the drumbeat on competitive employment and many are saying it’s better to start preparing now,” Mahoehney said. “It’s a huge philosophical shift, and a substantial shift in how organizations train their staff.” 

The grant will benefit eight service providers who expect to be fully transitioning their workshop-based model over the next couple of years. About 15 other providers in various stages of their own transition will also receive training and other support as part of the grant, said Julie Bershadsky, director of Community Living and Employment at ICI.  

“Our partners, including the University of Massachusetts and the Arc of Minnesota, will be expanding the reach of this work beyond these providers to engage self-advocates, families, the provider community and others,” Bershadsky said.  

Recognizing the challenges for providers and people with disabilities themselves in making this change is important, Mahoehney said. 

“Some people with disabilities have been going to these work programs for decades and they like the stability and the routine,” she said. “There are also barriers for families trying to make this work, but we also know the benefits of truly including people with disabilities in the workplace and with the economy today, this is a great time to be helping people with disabilities get jobs. Work can be a way out of poverty for them.”