Shunning productive Georgia workers is bad for us all

For individuals with developmental disabilities, the typical choices after finishing high school — getting a job or going to college — are difficult to accomplish, if not impossible. There are thousands of Georgians with developmental disabilities, and the unemployment rate for this group is more than 85 percent.

Kathy Keeley
Kathy Keeley

As the 2015 Georgia General Assembly begins working on the budget, advocacy groups are like ours are asking legislators for an increase in appropriation of state funds of $1.96 million in the FY 2016 Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities budget. This would fund a program covering “supported employment” for students with developmental disabilities transitioning out of high school.

Supported employment is an individualized approach to match individuals with developmental disabilities with employment opportunities in typical workplaces in the community. The goal is to have them working alongside people without disabilities earning minimum wage or above.

In fiscal 2015, DBHDD authorized just $10.9 million for supported employment services, but the need far exceeds what that amount can provide. Current waiting lists can be as long as nine years or more through waiver-based services.

Currently, Georgia lags far behind the rest of the nation in helping people with disabilities find gainful employment. Developmental disabilities are defined as severe, lifelong disabilities that limit critical life functions that occur before the age 22. They include autism, Down syndrome, and cerebral palsy, among many others.

For every $1 spent on helping individuals by investing in supported employment programs, the state gets an economic return of $1.61. Beyond that, the return to the workers and their families is incalculable. It means the difference between a life of isolation at home and full participation in the world of work and the community.

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 their services.

Through our “HireAbility” campaign, All About Developmental Disabilities is educating Georgia’s employers, dispelling their fears and preconceptions about hiring individuals with developmental disabilities. Some employers worry that these employees will not be able to keep up with the pace of work or that their customers will disapprove.

In fact, the opposite is true. Studies have shown the benefits of hiring people with developmental disabilities. Lower turnover, lower absenteeism rates, strong job loyalty, increased employee morale, and enhanced corporate image are just a few of the benefits when employers hire people with disabilities.

Many Georgia employers have experienced the benefits of hard-working, reliable, committed and caring workers who often 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.

It’s vital for us to work together to make sure job opportunities exist for all. This funding will allow individuals with developmental disabilities to experience the satisfaction and economic security that only a job can provide. By focusing on their abilities, not their disabilities, we can promote workplace success and improve lives.

Kathy Keeley is the executive director for All About Developmental Disabilities (