Maine, which is projected to lose around 111,000 workers in the coming decades, needs more people working. To that end, the state could be doing a better job at helping one group of people primed to fill those gaps  — individuals with disabilities.

Most people with disabilities don’t work, especially in Maine. Nationally, 34.9 percent of people with disabilities ages 18 to 64 worked in 2015, compared to 76 percent for people without disabilities, according to census data. But in Maine, just 29.6 percent of people with disabilities worked in 2015.

There are lessons Maine could learn from North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming, the states with the highest employment rates for people with disabilities, where around half of all people ages 18 to 64 with disabilities are employed.  

The success of these states seems to rest on strong collaboration between the government, employers, and individuals with disabilities, as well as robust outreach programs to educate businesses on the benefits of hiring people with disabilities.

Here’s a closer look at what these three states are doing to get more people with disabilities to work:

North Dakota — 50.6 percent of people with disabilities employed (2011 to 2015 average)

North Dakotans with disabilities don’t view their disabilities as preventing them from working, said Russ Cusack, the director of the state’s vocational rehabilitation program, which helps people with disabilities find and maintain employment.

“It’s an expectation that people work,” Cusack said. “They might view themselves as needing some kind of an accommodation to do their work but the word ‘disabled’ doesn’t really come into their vocabulary … individuals with disabilities are viewed as individuals with abilities.”

North Dakota’s vocational rehabilitation program works with local businesses to identify what kinds of skillsets businesses need and connect them with individuals with disabilities who want to work, Cusack said. To do that, they have assigned certain vocational rehabilitation counselors to focus on interacting with the business community, figuring out if a local business needs more workers, for example, or someone with a particular set of qualifications.

“Working with businesses is everyone’s business,” said Cusack. “That’s why we’re working with a great number of businesses to provide that bridge between people with disabilities and employment abilities.”

South Dakota – 50 percent of people with disabilities employed (2011 to 2015 average)

In South Dakota, the governor’s office has taken a lead on helping people with disabilities get employed. In 2013, Gov. Dennis Daugaard commissioned a task force to recommend how the state can increase the employment of people with disabilities.

This task force, which included employers, individuals with disabilities and legislators, resulted in a new position at the state level to support employers in hiring people with disabilities; the development of business-led organizations consisting of potential employers and employers who could answer questions about the process of employing people with disabilities; and increased counselling for people with disabilities on how working may affect the disability benefits they receive from the government.

Since the program was launched, the employment rate for individuals with disabilities has risen from 48.1 percent in 2013 to 51.7 percent in 2015.

In 2015, Gov. Daugaard also launched a media campaign, called the “Ability for Hire,” which aimed to raise awareness of the benefits of hiring people with disabilities and to combat common misconceptions about hiring people with disabilities.

Wyoming — 48.9 percent of people with disabilities employed (2011 to 2015 average)

In 2014, Wyoming brought together employers who have experience hiring people with disabilities to advise employers that are more wary, said Jim McIntosh, the administrator of Wyoming’s vocational rehabilitation program.

What really makes things work, McIntosh said, is approaching the issue as a team.

“We tried to do things independently of each other and it didn’t work very well, but as we’ve pulled folks together, the effort has really shown super results,” he said. “I can’t overemphasize the fact that you have to have teams to make this work right. If you don’t, you’ll have some success, but not the kind of success we have out here.”

Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News.

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