People with developmental disabilities need more job opportunities

Finding a job is often a challenge, but for people with developmental disabilities it is often nearly impossible.

Kathy Keeley
Kathy Keeley

Georgians with disabilities such as autism, Down syndrome, or cerebral palsy have experienced how society focuses on their limitations instead of their strengths. The overall unemployment rate in the U.S. hovers at 7 percent, but it’s closer to 80 percent for people with developmental disabilities (severe, lifelong disabilities that limit critical life functions).

Currently, Georgia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD) has authorized just $7.4 million for supported employment services, but the need is many times that amount.

A coalition of advocacy groups is asking the General Assembly to support an appropriation of state funds in the fiscal year 2015 DBHDD budget for a program to provide supported employment services to help students with developmental disabilities. The program would help young people who are finishing high school in 2014 find and keep good jobs in the regular workplace.

The coalition is grateful that the state House added $250,000 for this program, and now the Senate has increased that to appropriate $500,000 to fund supported employment services for Georgia students. It is critical to keep that money in the budget during conference committee deliberations and as the budget is sent to the governor.

For 40 years, children with developmental disabilities have been mainstreamed in the classroom, but once they graduate from high school, most are not transitioned into the workforce. Georgia lags far behind the rest of the nation in helping people with disabilities find gainful employment.

Many employers allow misinformation and preconceptions about developmental disabilities to pose obstacles to hiring. They worry that such employees will not be able to keep up with the pace of work or that customers will disapprove of the employees. Yet in fact the opposite is true: Studies have shown the benefits of hiring people with developmental disabilities.

“Supported employment” is an answer to those challenges. It provides an individualized approach to match individuals with developmental disabilities with employment opportunities in typical workplaces in the community. It also provides the needed follow-up support and job coaching to keep workers successful and employers well satisfied.

The goal is to have people with developmental disabilities working alongside people without disabilities, earning minimum wage or above. The economic return to the state from investing in supported employment programs exceeds $1.61 for every $1 spent.

Beyond that, the return to the workers and their families is incalculable. Without this program, these students would likely finish high school, only to return home and sit on the couch, waiting until they qualify for a Medicaid waiver to pay for support services. With a waiting list that has ballooned to 7,000 people in the last three years, they can wait for years.

Georgia employers have experienced the benefits of hard-working, reliable, committed and caring workers who can outperform their non-disabled peers. Publix, Walgreens, The Home Depot, the Georgia Aquarium, PF Chang’s, Kroger, and Hamilton Health Care in Dalton can testify to the strengths and abilities of these workers and the value of supported employment services.

Lower turnover, lower absenteeism rates, strong job loyalty, increased employee morale, and enhanced corporate image are just a few of the benefits that accrue when employers hire people with disabilities.

By giving unconventional employees an opportunity to prove themselves, Georgia employers have already begun to demonstrate that this group of motivated workers has untapped potential. By focusing on their abilities, not their disabilities, we can promote workplace success and improve the lives of many individuals.

As a community, we need to work together to make sure opportunities exist for all. We need this funding to provide necessary job development and job coaching so that people with developmental disabilities can experience what many of us take for granted — the satisfaction and economic security that only a job can provide.

Kathy Keeley is executive director of All About Developmental Disabilities