A photo of the U.S. Capitol Building
In February, Lauren Avellone of the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center at VCU testified as an expert before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging. (Getty Images)

VCU researcher makes the case for improving employment for people with disabilities

Lauren Avellone of the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center, who testified recently before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, offers insight into the realities and hopes tied to a longstanding issue.

Share this story

More than 42 million Americans live with some form of disability, according to Census Bureau data from 2021. But in the workforce, individuals with disabilities are chronically underrepresented: Just 40.5% were employed in January 2024 compared with 77.3% of people without disabilities, according to the Center of Research on Disability.

“People with disabilities who have complex support needs are at the highest risk of being unemployed or working in jobs below their potential,” said Lauren Avellone, Ph.D., an associate professor at the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center at Virginia Commonwealth University. “They often end up in segregated facilities where only people with disabilities are employed, performing repetitive tasks for very little pay” – usually below the federal minimum wage.

Avellone’s research and clinical work focuses on helping individuals with disabilities access education and employment. In February, she testified as an expert before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging about the importance of competitive integrated employment.

At the RRTC, which is part of VCU’s School of Education, Avellone and her colleagues help people with complex support needs find jobs within the community that are comparable to those obtained by people without disabilities.

“Work outcomes should not be different for Americans simply on the basis of disability,” she said.

VCU News spoke with Avellone about the realities and hopes for improving employment for people with disabilities.

Why is employment so important?

Workforce participation provides a myriad of benefits that impact quality of life. Gainful employment allows people the opportunity to establish economic independence, socialize with like-minded people, dedicate time to a personally meaningful cause, contribute to one’s community and develop new skillsets both personally and professionally.

Research has shown that young adults who have complex support needs and are competitively employed become more independent and need less assistance from others over time. Stimulating work environments challenge them to learn and grow in areas beyond simply employment, developing skills in other major areas of life including home living, self-advocacy, personal care, learning and technology, and health and safety.

The development of these skills is necessary for pursuing broader life goals related to independent living, interpersonal relationships, education and retirement.

Why have people with disabilities been so underutilized in the workforce?

People with disabilities have long endured negative stereotypes and stigma from employers about their ability to be skilled and competent workers. The misconception that people with disabilities cannot contribute as valuably to the workforce as those without disabilities has a longstanding history. This notion originally led to the practice of placing people with disabilities in segregated work settings (called sheltered employment, facility-based employment, or work centers) among only other workers who have disabilities.

This practice still exists today. These facilities can apply for a specialized “14c Certificate” from the U.S. Department of Labor, which legally allows them to pay people with disabilities below the federal minimum wage. In some cases, this is pennies on the hour.

So this certificate program is a structural issue?

To provide some historical context, the 14c Certificate was first created by the ironically named Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. Its original intention was positive – and thought to benefit people with disabilities and injured veterans – by giving those deemed unable to meet competitive employment standards an opportunity to work, but at reduced compensation. Placing people with disabilities who had complex support needs in 14c Certificate programs was also viewed as an important training opportunity for them to learn work skills before transitioning to competitive integrated employment.

However, we now know that there is no empirical evidence suggesting that subminimum wage work is effective or necessary for achieving competitive integrated employment outcomes for people with disabilities, including those with the highest support needs. In fact, very few people who begin in 14c Certificate programs transition to competitive integrated employment. Rather, they remain indefinitely in the segregated program.

And this is not because their skillsets are different than those who are working competitively. A 2020 report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights investigating 14c programs indicated that the typical profile of individuals earning subminimum wages was not significantly different than the profiles of those working for competitive pay in community jobs. Many individuals who are currently working for subminimum wages can and want to work for fair pay.

What was the biggest goal of your testimony before the Senate committee?

My main goal was to provide information in support of the Transformation to Competitive Integrated Employment Act, introduced by Sen. Bob Casey. A major objective of the TCIEA is to eliminate the use of 14c Certificates, thus ending the unfair practice of paying people with disabilities below the federal minimum wage.

The TCIEA would prevent the issuance of further 14c Certificates; require agencies using 14c Certificates to develop phase-out plans over the next five years; and provide support to assist agencies in transitioning people with disabilities who are being paid subminimum wages to competitive integrated employment.

At VCU, how does the RRTC address the issue?

RRTC initiatives include research, technical assistance, resource dissemination, outreach and collaboration. We have a number of projects examining best practices for securing quality employment outcomes for people with disabilities related to supported employment, customized employment, inclusive postsecondary education, transition-to-work for high school students with disabilities, and employer practices. We also provide state-level and national-level consultation to a variety of stakeholders, including employment service providers, businesses, educators, and job seekers with disabilities and their families.

When designing projects and resources, we regularly consult with working-age adults with disabilities in order to make sure our efforts meet their needs. We exclusively focus on competitive integrated employment as an outcome for all people with disabilities.

Our mission is to enhance the overall employment landscape for individuals with disabilities by providing more opportunities to participate in real work for real pay rather than in segregated settings for subminimum wages. This includes making sure that people with disabilities are gaining employment in a variety of industries, are involved at all levels within businesses, are working a personally desirable number of hours and are provided with opportunities for promotions, and other forms of advancement throughout their employment tenure.