Employment First – Three Years of Success

On March 19, 2012, the Employment First initiative was signed.

Tomorrow, Ohio will recognize the three-year anniversary of the signing of Governor John Kasich’s Employment First Executive Order, supporting the shift within Ohio’s developmental disabilities community to a workplace culture that recognizes and embraces the contributions and abilities of people with developmental disabilities. Since the beginning of the Employment First initiative, improvements in state policies have enabled Ohio’s local communities to be better prepared to transform services and expectations, and foster more opportunities for improved community employment outcomes.

According to Kristen Helling, DODD lead person for the Employment First initiative, “Now, at the three-year mark, we have some good, statewide data about the increase in positive employment outcomes for people with developmental disabilities, and we can share some success stories about individuals who have obtained employment through the partnership DODD has with Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities (OOD).” (See Pipeline, July 31, 2013). She continued,

“Since the signing of the Executive Order, there has been an increase of more than 1,000 people with developmental disabilities who are working in the community, according to data reported by County Boards of DD. This represents an almost 16 percent increase since the inception of the Employment First initiative in Ohio.”

Success Stories

The kinds of changes and growth experienced by people involved in Employment First efforts range well beyond simply getting a job in the community. While that is a key goal, the three individuals briefly profiled here exemplify the additional, positive life changes many have realized.


Tom works at the Athens City Parks and Recreation Department, and has experienced a surge in independence and responsibility — both at work and in his personal life — since landing his new job. On the personal side, Tom cares for two new birds and two home garden beds, and he responsibly manages his spending money. Tom’s health also has greatly improved since he started working, reducing the need for expensive specialists and emergency services. He has weaned himself off of oxygen, been released from his heart specialist, and quit smoking! Tom still has many needs, but his quality of life has greatly improved, and his reliance on public support has dramatically decreased since obtaining employment. (See Tom in Pipeline Pix, this issue!)


Previously labeled as having attendance and behavioral issues — and even dismissed from vocational and day programs in the past – Kelly experienced boredom and frustration with sheltered workshop and enclave options presented to her before she was referred to an Employment First counselor. Through the partnership between OOD and DODD, she secured a position in a nursing home less than five miles from her home in Fayette County. There, Kelly is a valued asset, and staff report that she is empathetic and caring toward residents, who respond well to her. She earns minimum wage, has paid holidays, vacation, and sick time, and health insurance options – plus reduced-price meals. According to her mom, Kelly is much happier in her new job than she was in the sheltered workshop.


When Heidi aged-out of her segregated school setting several decades ago, she transitioned directly to a sheltered workshop in her area. Once there, Heidi completed piece work and simple production tasks. Then, she was referred to the Employment First partnership in Cuyahoga County and gained employment in a local nursing home. In addition to the financial benefits of the new job, Heidi’s sister has noticed many other positive changes in her. She says that Heidi no longer needs physical therapy, and she participates in a community walking group. Heidi used to participate in a yoga class while seated in a chair — and now, the chair is gone! Her circle of friends also has increased, and she attends a book club and church with coworkers. Heidi takes care of her work clothes, and is always ready for work. And, for the first time in 45 years, Heidi has chosen to reduce the number of weeks she attends a summer camp because she doesn’t want to miss work! The positive impact of her job extends well beyond a paycheck.

Observations for the Future

Helling observes, “As we shift our culture to one that supports community employment as a preferred outcome, more and more individuals are empowered to identify their own interests, and seek jobs that match their skills. This approach is enabling them to participate more fully in their communities.

More information at http://ohioemploymentfirst.org/, and at Ohio’s Path to Employment First