hippolitusPaul Hippolitus, the director of the UC Berkeley Disabled Students’ Program , recalls that when he entered the disability employment field in 1971, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated 33% of adults with disabilities worked either full or part time. In September 2015 that estimated rate was down to 20%. “After 44 years of laws, education efforts with employers, tax credits, accessibility efforts, education access—how can this possibly be?”, he asks.

Drawing on his nearly 45 years in the field, Paul points to two dynamics. The first is the disincentive structures of the federal disability benefit programs: Supplemental Security Insurance (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). The second is shortcomings he sees in the job preparation programs for workers with disabilities.

Paul is one of our state’s experts on employment for adults with physical and development disabilities (Paul, like many of us, dislikes the term “disabilities”, but uses it as the shorthand term most widely understood today).

Paul graduated from Marquette University and George Washington University, and he served in the U.S. Navy from 1968-1971. From 1987 through 2001 he served as Director of the Office of Plans, Projects and Services, U.S President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities; and from 2001-2006, he was a Senior Disability Employment Advisor in the Office of Disability Employment at USDOL. Since 2006, he has directed university level disability programs in California, first at California State University, East Bay, and since 2009, at UC Berkeley, as Director of the Disabled Students’ Program.

In his time with the federal government, Paul became familiar with the federal benefit programs, and critical of their structure. He argues that “Social Security programs need to de-couple their benefits from an ability to work or not. We have proven the self-fulfilling prophecy which currently requires people with disabilities to prove that they can’t work before they can receive any benefits. Most remain unemployed in order to sustain their benefits.”

Of course there have been many attempts to make work more attractive for workers on SSI and SSDI including the touted Ticket to Work effort of the Clinton Administration, which allowed benefit recipients to keep part of their earnings and health for a time after becoming employed. Though the Ticket to Work continues to evolve, its results so far have been minimal in reducing benefit rolls. Paul, though, believes that decoupling fully benefits from earnings is the only way that the disincentive structure will be seriously impacted. “These benefits should be re-conceptualized as financial assistance to help support the added expenses of having an employment related disability, while encouraging and assisting the beneficiaries to work to augment them.” He adds, “the taxable income would result in a net savings in costs”.

Regarding the supply side, Paul explains that “those of us supporting the employment of persons with disabilities need to get out of the model which says ‘if employers would just be aware, sensitive, not discriminate and employ our population, they would get jobs.’ This one dimensional strategy has created a gap in our disability employment policies and programs. We’ve concentrated almost exclusively on the demand (employer) side of the labor equation and only thought about the supply side (applicants with disabilities) in terms of their formal education or job training skills. This approach represents an incomplete equation. It has generally ignored basic workplace realities, particularly that job applicants with disabilities have to be self-confident and able to effectively market themselves successfully in order to get and advance in jobs or careers. That’s how business works. It’s inherently a competitive process.”

It is with the job training and preparation programs that Paul is most active today. With Professor Caren Sax and others at the Interwork Institute program at San Diego State University (SDSU) with the support of the Kessler Foundation, Paul has developed a workforce preparation program for job seekers with disabilities concentrating on developing an employment self-confidence within their students; and, in turn, becoming more powerful to effectively market themselves to employers. This is how they can succeed in the workplace. It’s all about building a fundamental belief in the person with a disability, that they have employment potential and “how to” best represent that potential to a prospective employer. He teaches the course at UC Berkeley, and it is also being taught at Cal State Fullerton and SDSU. He is working with Eric Glunt and Dave Mayer of EDD and others to expand it to the state university and community college systems. Here is where the instructor’s guide to the course can be found: http://interwork.sdsu.edu/c2c/

Paul summarizes, “Our greatest achievements have been in establishing the rights of people with disabilities. What we’ve learned is that those alone will not carry the day. We need to build out our education training and rehabilitation programs in ways which address the self-confidence factor of their employment potential and how they can aggressively pursue their career options.”