Federal officials are beginning to send cash to states this week in an effort to promote integrated, community-based employment for people with even the most severe disabilities.

In the first round of a new “employment first” initiative, the U.S. Department of Labor said Monday that it has awarded $100,000 each to Tennessee, Iowa and Oregon. The funding is designed to help state agencies work together so that they can usher youth and adults with disabilities into competitive, community-based work environments as opposed to sheltered workshops, which often pay less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.

“It’s time to move past the stereotypes and misconceptions that people with disabilities can’t work,” said Kathy Martinez, assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy, in announcing the new initiative. “Research clearly shows that people with significant disabilities can work in the community and earn minimum wage.”

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Martinez spoke from personal experience, noting that many assumed that she would be unable to hold down a job because she is blind, but today she serves as a presidential appointee.

What each state does with the money is quite flexible, Martinez said. However, the planning grants are intended to allow states to establish policies so that integrated employment is the first objective for all individuals with disabilities.

In addition to the three states selected to receive grants, federal officials will also provide funding to Washington state, which will serve as a mentor for the grant recipients. Washington was the first state to institute an “employment first” policy in 2006 and is considered a national leader in the approach, Labor Department officials said.

Each of the states receiving grants in the first round are guaranteed funding for this fiscal year and next. Other states are expected to be able to apply for a second round of grants in the coming months.