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Gov. Mark Dayton announced two new hiring initiatives Thursday designed to improve the low rate of employment of Minnesotans with disabilities in state government.

Flanked by disability advocates at a news conference, Dayton unveiled Connect 700, a program that will give people with disabilities up to 700 hours of on-the-job work experience in state agencies to demonstrate their abilities. A second supported work program will offer people with disabilities up to 50 full-time positions in state agencies.

“We need to lead by example,” Dayton said. “We can’t expect businesses and nonprofits to be spearheading new efforts if we aren’t leading the way.”

The move is part of a longer-term effort by the state to reverse what had been a sharp decline in the state’s employment of people with disabilities. Before Dayton took office, a number of state agencies had stopped tracking the hiring and recruiting of people with disabilities, officials said. Agencies had affirmative action plans, but they lacked specific disability employment goals. As a result, the rate of workers with disabilities in state government had plunged from 10 percent in 1999 to less than 4 percent in 2013.

In August 2014, Dayton directed state agencies to increase the share of disabled workers to at least 7 percent by August 2018. Since then, the state has designed a model for recruiting and hiring people with disabilities, and has mandated quarterly reporting on hiring targets. Currently, the overall percentage of state employees with disabilities is 6.2 percent, but a number of state agencies are still below 4 percent.

“I really believe that, as a state, we’ve turned the corner,” said Mary Hartnett, executive director of the state Commission of Deaf, DeafBlind and Hard of Hearing Minnesotans.

The hiring push comes as the state begins to address other, long-standing barriers to employment for people with disabilities. Once considered a leader in disability rights, Minnesota now has one of the lowest rates of integrated employment in the nation for people with developmental disabilities.

In 2014, just 11 percent of those receiving state services worked in jobs in the community — compared with 19 percent nationally. Thousands of these individuals work in cloistered workplaces, known as “sheltered workshops,” where they typically earn less than the minimum wage.

Under pressure from the federal courts, the state has established ambitious, annual goals for moving many of these individuals into the mainstream workforce. The so-called Olmstead Plan, approved last year by a federal judge, calls for increasing the number of people working in integrated, competitive jobs by 20,000 by June 2020.

In 2005, a state survey of 600 Minnesota employers found that businesses who employed people with disabilities rated those workers equal to or higher than employees without disabilities in similar positions on every performance measure except work speed.

“It is 26 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA] passed,” said Colleen Wieck, executive director of the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities. “Advancements in technology have enabled even people with the most significant disabilities to be included in the workforce.”

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308

Twitter: @chrisserres