Guest commentary: Competitive integrated employment

How Iowa will use Disability Innovation Fund Grant

Submitted by Brandy McOmber

Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services was awarded a Disability Innovation Fund Grant to support innovative activities aimed at improving the outcomes of individuals with disabilities. Nearly $14 million, awarded by the U.S. Department of Education, will be used over five years to advance and improve systems across Iowa so that Iowans with disabilities move from subminimum wage employment to competitive integrated employment opportunities. 

We are really excited for the opportunity to bring new resources to the Iowans with disabilities who are currently employed in subminimum wage positions. We look forward to working with our partners and stakeholders on this project. The work is vital to ensuring the state of Iowa is focused on competitive integrated employment as the first, and not the last, option.

The Fair Labor Standards Act established a federal minimum wage, guidelines for overtime pay and child labor restrictions; it also created 14(c) certificates, which permit employers to pay people with disabilities less than minimum wage — and the law puts no limit on how much less. 

Nearly 39% of Americans with disabilities were employed in October, with at least 70,000 working for 14(c) certificate holders, many of them “sheltered workshops” for adults with physical or intellectual disabilities. 

This grant will allow Iowa to create opportunities for people with disabilities to leave sheltered workshops and enter into employment. It will focus on:

  • Establishing a diverse coalition of stakeholders that support Iowans with disabilities to work in competitive integrated employment.
  • Utilizing the U.S. Department of Labor to support professional registered apprentice and pre-apprenticeship models for employment specialists. 
  • Increasing youth participation in transition services.
  • Focusing on the Governor’s Future Ready Iowa initiative to identify the training and other needs of individuals with disabilities to ensure they are paired with employment opportunities that reduce socioeconomic, ethnic and racial achievement gaps. 
  • Increasing expectations and demands for competitive integrated employment for all Iowans with disabilities. 
  • Aligning public policies, funding and practices that support competitive integrated employment as the first and preferred outcome for all Iowans with disabilities. 

In addition to individuals working in subminimum wage positions, IVRS provides services to a wide range of eligible individuals with disabilities seeking employment opportunities. Businesses who are interested in employing individuals with disabilities should consider partnering with IVRS to tap into this group of untapped talent.  

Vocational rehabilitation counselors and staff can assist with helping organizations take advantage of the benefits that hiring people with disabilities brings to the workforce. Businesses that actively recruit individuals with disabilities have reported that they are able to benefit from increased applications for their positions and also see improved retention rates.  

More information about the  Disability Innovation Fund program and grant awardees can be found on the Rehabilitation Services Administration website at: 

To learn more about Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services, visit their website at:

Brandy McOmber is a manager with Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services.