The U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) selected 12 states and the District of Columbia to participate in its Visionary Opportunities to Increase Competitive Integrated Employment (VOICE) initiative earlier this month, according to Scott Allen, deputy director for public affairs and media relations.

The chosen participants will receive support to help them develop policy designed to increase employment opportunities for people with mental health disabilities.

State’s chosen

Arkansas; Colorado; Washington, D.C.; Indiana; Iowa; Kentucky; Louisiana; Michigan; Missouri; North Carolina; Tennessee; Virginia and Wisconsin will receive intensive policy consulting, technical support and peer mentoring to increase competitive integrated employment for people with mental health disabilities.

“Competitive integrated employment” is work in typical community settings, where most employees do not have disabilities and where an employer pays them directly at the greater of the minimum or prevailing wage.

States participating in the VOICE initiative may self-direct their hours of peer mentoring support, with many choosing to help employment services providers transform their service models from segregated settings – where people with disabilities work apart from others – to integrated settings. States may also form communities of practice for service providers or develop training on topics such as customized employment. Customized employment involves personalizing the relationship between an employee and their employer to meet both parties’ needs, as well as individual placement and support.

Eligibility for the VOICE initiative included states that secured leadership from at least five state agencies responsible for Mental Health, Vocational Rehabilitation, Workforce, Education and Medicaid to assist in its implementation.

Local impact

In response to a Plain Dealer request Thursday, Marni Lemons, Indiana Family and Social Services Administration (FSSA) deputy director for communications and media, stated Indiana intends to use technical assistance from this award to help improve employment outcomes for people with mental health issues who participate in FSSA’s Vocational Rehabilitation Services.

“Unfortunately, employment outcomes for this population lag behind those of other people who engage in VR services who don’t have mental health issues and only have physical limitations,” she stated. “The 300 hours of training and technical assistance that our state has been awarded as part of the VOICE initiative will allow us to collaborate with experts and lay a foundation of supported employment which helps people living with mental health conditions work at competitive, integrated jobs of their choosing. Obtaining and maintaining employment – often thought to be out of reach of individuals diagnosed with serious mental illness – is, in reality, an essential part of recovery. It has a positive impact on self-esteem, life satisfaction, and symptom reduction. Most people with mental illness want to work, and this initiative will help strengthen the infrastructure of services available to help make that a reality.”

Lemons stated while this would not be specific to Wabash County, “this program will be positive for our state as a whole.”

FSSA’s Division of Mental Health and Addiction (DMHA) and Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) group will co-lead the program, with the support of the Indiana chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), KEY Consumer Organization and the Work to Include Coalition.

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