WILLIAMSBURG, Va. -- The new chairman of the National Governors Association plans to focus his year at the helm on developing ways that states can help those with disabilities find jobs.
Delaware Gov. Jack Markell (D), who assumed the top spot at the close of the NGA's annual conference Sunday morning, wants the association to research and put together a toolkit for states seeking to develop programs for hiring people with disabilities, including in partnerships with business. He succeeds Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman (R), who focused his chairmanship year on state economic development.
Markell told The Huffington Post that he first became interested in the issue of jobs for the disabled -- primarily individuals with developmental disabilities -- about nine years ago when as Delaware's treasurer he was touring a company and met a 25-year-old disabled man who was making T-shirts. Markell said he asked the man what he was doing before he got the job.
"He told me that he sat at home for six years watching television with his parents," Markell recalled. "[The job] was a huge impact for his quality of life."
According to Labor Department statistics for 2011, 17.8 percent of Americans with a disability are employed, compared to 63.6 percent of those with no disability. The statistics also show that 15.0 percent of individuals with disabilities are unemployed, compared to 8.7 percent of those without disabilities.
Markell plans to convene a series of regional meetings around the country to meet with business leaders and advocates for the disabled in order to review what is working and what isn't. He said he intends to use the forums to develop blueprints for governors on how to implement the good ideas in their states. The regional meeting approach is similar to how Heineman pursued his economic development initiative.
Markell also said that he will reach out directly to business leaders, noting that several companies have had success in their efforts to increase hiring of people with disabilities. He cited an initiative by Walgreens and added that other companies, including Best Buy, IBM, Merck and Procter & Gamble, are working on similar programs.
According to Markell, Walgreens has created distribution centers where a large percentage of workers have developmental disabilities and the company provides coaches to help them. He said he would like to explore how the latter strategy could be made feasible for small businesses, possibly through the sharing of coaches.
Within his own state of Delaware, Markell said he has not really pushed this issue since becoming governor in 2009 but he intends to do so as part of the learning process during his year running the NGA.
The NGA chairmanship rotates annually between the two parties, with the vice chairman ascending to the chairman's slot the next year. Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) was elected to the vice chairmanship on Sunday.
Markell's initiative is a departure from prior NGA projects in its scope. Previous chairmen have tended to focus on broader topics, including Heineman's economic development plan, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell's focus on infrastructure in 2008-2009, and former Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening's smart growth initiative in 2000-2001. Markell said that he wanted to go a different route.
"I was looking for something to have a big impact on," Markell said.