The unemployment rate is historically low right now, however, some area residents with physical challenges can still face greater obstacles than others when entering the job market.

But now a new program may help those with disabilities in this area – and across the state – find good jobs in traditional workplaces.

On Wednesday, Feb. 19, the NC Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) announced that North Carolina was one of 12 states selected to participate in a program by the US Department of Labor called “VOICE Initiative to Increase Employment to Those with Disabilities.”

According to information describing the program, “Under the VOICE initiative, North Carolina will receive intensive policy consulting, technical support and mentoring to increase competitive integrated employment — meaning workers with disabilities working in typical workplaces, alongside co-workers without disabilities, where people with and without disabilities are paid the same.”

The announcement adds, “Competitive integrated employment helps people with disabilities access and participate in the broader community, develop meaningful relationships with peers without disabilities, build new skills and increase self-sufficiency.”

Experts from the VOICE team will provide technical assistance to a state team called the “Employment First Implementation Team.” That team will include representatives from the state’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services and the Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Substance Abuse Services.

Chris Egan, the senior director for employment services for NCDHHS, said the program should help unlock a lot of talent in the state that currently might not have the opportunity to fully participate in ordinary work environments.

“Expanding opportunities for North Carolinians with disabilities to find well-paying jobs has obvious benefits in terms of financial stability and independence for workers and their families,” Egan stated. “However, the benefits for employers and the overall economy should not be overlooked, As one of the largest employers in North Carolina, state government is wise to recruit from an untapped talent pool of qualified candidates with disabilities as part of our efforts to promote a diverse workforce.”

State officials say that, by selecting North Carolina to participate in the program, the VOICE initiative recognized the state’s leadership across multiple state agencies, including those responsible for mental health, developmental disabilities, vocational rehabilitation, workforce, education and Medicaid services and supports.

The other states selected were Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin, plus the District of Columbia.