Duane Mayes: Dedicated to the Dignity of Work for People with Disabilities

Milbank State Leadership Network State Health Policy Leadership

Duane Mayes

Many were educated and moved last year by “Coda,” the Academy Award-winning film about the hearing child of deaf parents. Like the main character in that film, Duane G. Mayes, director of the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation at the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, grew up with deaf parents , with American Sign Languageashis first language.  (Parents Betty and Gerald Mayes pictured in photo above.) Building on formative experiences acting as an advocate within his own family, Mayes has been helping adults with disabilities prepare for, obtain, and maintain meaningful employment for more than 38 years. He has also worked in the private sector and served as the operations director with the Alaska Governor’s Council on Disabilities and Special Education and division director for Senior and Disabilities Services with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. Further, for many years he was an active member of the Milbank Memorial Fund’s Reforming States Group, the predecessor to the Milbank State Leadership Network.   

What inspired you to go into vocational rehabilitation? 

I grew up in a farm town of 3,000 people, just south of Green Bay, Wisconsin. They called it the Holy Land. My mom and dad, both being deaf, moved to that area because my dad was able to find employment as a press machine operator for the local newspaper. I was exposed to the frustrations and emotions of his journey and the oppression that occurred for him and as well as my mom. 

I remember the day he came home from work weeping. I think I was 12. He said, “I quit my job.” He [had learned that] an individual without disabilities who was hired at the same time as he was had been given incremental raises from year to year. My dad had not gotten a pay raise in eight years. 

For one year, he was out of work. He applied for multiple jobs. My brother and sister and I would take turns being his interpreter, helping him to complete the application. Both my brother and I remember that sometimes we would walk out of an interview and see the employer rip up the application and throw it into the garbage can. 

About a year into it, I made a phone call to the pots-and-pans factory where my mom worked. I call it my first placement. I got to the HR person and introduced myself as the son of Betty Mayes. And he said, “Oh my gosh, your mother is the best worker that we have.” And I said, “Well, my dad’s outta work.” And he says, “Well, have him come down. We have a buffer position that’s available.”  So, he applies for the position, and they offered the job. He worked in that position for 35 years. My parents had an impact on everything I do.  

Why is work and state assistance with employment opportunities so important for people with disabilities? 

Work really brings a sense of purpose and independence. I worked closely with our governor’s team to create the Alaska Work Matters Task Force last March. The task force includes representatives of government, businesses, and Alaskans with disabilities. We are reviewing all work-related programs for Alaskans with disabilities, whether it be those with mental illness, developmental disabilities, those that are deaf, those that have cognitive issues, sensory issues. We are exploring issues like how we can improve our work with the private sector, so businesses understand that if you hire a person with a disability, research shows that you will improve your work culture and overall performance and have employees that will stay with you for a long time. 

We will have a final report with a set of recommendations in June of 2022 that we can then apply to existing systems to have better outcomes in terms of competitive and integrated employment. We have  packaged the recommendations into five core areas: 

  1. The state as a model employer of individuals with disabilities 
  2. Employment services and supports, such as transportation  
  3. Prepare-for-work and transition, e.g., with young people 
  4. Senior employment initiative  
  5. COVID-19 

What role do vocational rehabilitation trade associations, on which you have served in leadership positions, play in this work? 

The vocational rehabilitation program celebrated a hundred years in 2020. The trade associations defend the program every year in Congress. Roughly 79% of the funding we receive to provide services to people with disabilities comes from the federal government, and then we match it with 21% of general funds in the state system. I’m very fortunate to have a delegation that gets and understands disability rights.  

How was the vocational rehabilitation program affected by the pandemic? 

States had a dramatic drop in the number of applications for assistance with employment. Our numbers are starting to go back up, and we have created an online virtual platform for applications and service delivery. I think the silver lining is that we created another way to provide services to those with disabilities who are comfortable doing it virtually. We conducted a survey with our consumers and about 70% reported they feel comfortable with the online platform.  

What are some of the challenges facing vocational rehabilitation programs? 

We had a national forum of public vocational rehabilitation program directors in October 2021, where we did a deep dive into what our priorities should be going forward. We identified branding and public awareness as really important to our programs. I often hear that we’re the best kept secret—and that really bothers me. We should be a household name. People should immediately be thinking of us if there’s an individual with disabilities who needs help in terms of employment. Our number two priority is employer engagement and business relations. We have a two-customer approach. Obviously, we’re working with the person with the disability who applies for services, and that may include training, and the other customer for us is the employer. We spend a lot of time making sure that we identify the consumer that has the skillset to match the job that’s vacant with that employer. The third priority is speeding up our sluggish internal processes.   

How can state leaders like Medicaid directors help prioritize vocational rehabilitation? 

  • Create customized care and service plans with the individuals who will receive the support and engage them in work as part of that plan 
  • Explore the potential for optimizing limited public dollars by pairing waiver services with employment opportunities that can improve participants’ economic security  
  • Remember how much the power of work can influence outlook, well-being, community integration, and engagement for people with disabilities