Nonprofit organizations and legislators push for better employment opportunities for New York state residents with disabilities

Originally published in Times Union

ALBANY - Mike Lizzi has worked in Albany since 1994, and established a happy life for himself, his wife of almost 20 years, and his two children.

Working as an administrative assistant of mail fulfillment services for the Center for Disability Services, Lizzi understands the importance of people with disabilities having independence with jobs and creating a successful life for themselves.

“It’s important for people with disabilities to work, not only because we get the chance to live like everybody else, but also because it gives us self-satisfaction."

On Tuesday, state legislators and leaders of nonprofit organizations held a press conference to discuss the need for adequate funding for state programs that would allow more state residents with disabilities to find employment. Advocates say the economy sees rewards from from their meaningful employment.

In 1967, at the age of 2, Lizzi was in a car accident in New Jersey where he suffered a head injury and stayed in the intensive care unit for almost two months. This injury would affect him for the rest of his life, but it did not stop him from reaching his goals.

His family moved to Albany, where he went on to graduate from high school and went to Schenectady Community College and then Rochester Institute of Technology to study business. He has been working at the Center for Disability Services 28 years, and uses it as his mission to help other people with disabilities so they can achieve their goals without letting their disadvantages hold them back.

“I found my home. It’s about helping other people achieve their goals, and I feel like I can do that here,” Lizzi said.

“We can go into the community and be able to teach other people who have disabilities, and also bring them to their higher level of achievement, which is important because they want to excel, they want to do well, they want to make sure they make it through life.”

At Tuesday's press conference, Sen. John Mannion, a Syracuse Democrat who chairs the Senate's Committee on Disabilities, said the state must expand the Preferred Source work program and connect people with disabilities to meaningful careers.

“We need to convince the government and others that disability providers must be properly funded far beyond what has been done in the past, and policies must be put in place to support that mission,” he said.

The Preferred Source Program is a model that ensures more employment opportunities for persons with disabilities. Although unemployment for all state residents rose during the pandemic, the effects were worse for residents with disabilities. 

According to the state Labor Department, between April 2020 and May 2021, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities was 16.2 percent, an increase of 8.9 percent from the previous year. Compare that to the rate for the general population, which was 11.3 percent during the same period.

Maureen O’Brien, president and CEO for the New York State Industries for the Disabled, said a recent report showed the positive economic impact that employment of people with disabilities brings to New York.

The Rockefeller Institute of Government Executive Summary found that in 2019, 427 of New York State’s nonprofit disability service providers reported $6.7 billion dollars in revenue, and generated $14.3 billion dollars in economic output.

“The Rockefeller Institute report puts hard numbers to what we’ve been saying for years — that when people with disabilities have jobs, our entire state benefits,” said O’Brien in a press release. Also, they contributed $2.2 billion in both federal and state tax revenue.

“As a policymaker, I'm committed to doing everything in my power to support New Yorkers with disabilities in every way possible and that includes employment that enriches their lives, and the lives of others,”  Mannion said. “It is a bona fide contribution to our society and for the greater good.”