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Tennessee Helps People with Disabilities Get Community Jobs

April 6, 2015
Source: Greeneville Sun, TN

Initiative Focuses on Abilities Not Disabilities

A statewide effort is underway to increase employment opportunities for people supported by the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD).

Locally, almost 20 DIDD-supported people living at Greene Valley Developmental Center and East Tennessee Community Homes (ETCH) are employed throughout the community. Many have worked in traditional jobs for several years.

Now, DIDD is working to extend the same opportunities to more of its clients.

Employment First

The Employment First movement is a nationwide initiative to transition disabled persons working in sheltered workshops into integrated employment settings.

Tennessee has received national recognition for its work in Employment First, and is the only state to have two State Ambassadors working with the U.S. Department of Labors Employment First State Leadership Mentoring Program.

"Employment First is one of many of the departments efforts to help ensure that people with intellectual disabilities have the same opportunities to live and work in the community that we all have," said Cara Kumari, communications director for DIDD.

The Employment First initiative is an effort to comply with federal laws and regulations that require desegregation and deinstitutionalization of people living with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Since 2014, federal regulations related to Medicaids Home and Community Based Services (HCBS) waivers dictate that individuals must be supported in settings that are not institutional in nature, Kumari said.

"The rules focus on the experience of each person receiving services and supports -- are they living the life they want? Can they work, particularly in places where other people who do not have disabilities work, and can they earn a competitive wage? Are they part of their community?

"The goal is to ensure that every person receiving HCBS has access to all the benefits of community living," Kumari said.

She added that DIDD is working to focus on employment and integrated community living as the "first and preferred option" for people the department serves.

"We recognize that some people may not be able to work or may choose not to work. For those people, we want to provide supports that will help them participate in their communities and pursue their community living goals," she said.

Traditional Employment

Locally, 13 ETCH and five Greene Valley residents participate in community employment programs in traditional workplaces.

Participants make at least minimum wage, but how much they can earn is currently capped by state law as to not affect the federal and state benefits that provide for the bulk of their care.

However, those rules were recently changed at the federal level. Similar changes are under consideration in committees of the Tennessee General Assembly.

For a person with intellectual disabilities, the process of finding a job is similar to that of non-disabled persons.

"The best opportunities come from networking with local businesses, talking to people and just asking around," said Matthew Parriott, public information officer for DIDD.

The biggest challenges often stem from fear. "One of the biggest challenges can often be overcoming the fears of a persons loved ones, who are worried the person might not be safe or accepted in a community job," Parriott said.

To overcome that, DIDD works with each individuals "circle of support" to discuss "the experience, exposure and education needed to make an informed choice about employment."

To Suit Interests, Abilities

Finding the best opportunities to suit DIDD clients abilities is a team effort, Parriott said, but staff members look for job and volunteer opportunities that suit each individuals interests.

An example of employment to suit interest is Rodger Moses, an ETCH resident who has worked at the Greene County Highway Departments garage since 2008.

Four days a week, Moses works for an hour a day carrying out custodial duties in the Highway Departments offices. After his work is done, he takes time to watch the road departments heavy machinery at work.

According to his job coach, Tammy Dunbar, working at the Highway Department is the right match for Moses because he loves big machines like tractors and backhoes.

He likes to spend the money he earns at farm supply stores, picking up John Deere Tractor memorabilia to decorate his bedroom, she added.

"We try to keep up with anything they love to do. It helps them be happy and comfortable," said Barbara Young, active treatment coordinator for ETCH.

Building Relationships

Young, a veteran DIDD employee with 37 years of experience combined at GVDC and ETCH, said that being able to work boosts an individuals self-esteem.

It also provides an opportunity for new friendships.

"They have strong relationships with other employees. Their co-workers show up for events. At Christmas time, they visit and bring presents," she said.

"Its good because it helps them be recognized in the community."

One ETCH resident who may be among the most recognized in the community is David McGill, who has worked at Critters Corner Market in Mosheim since 2007.

McGill has a variety of responsibilities at the restaurant, from cleaning tables and washing dishes to greeting the many regular customers who frequent the establishment.

"I love working here," he said in an interview last week. Before the interview, McGill was busy drying dishes and stocking tables with condiments. He also enjoys telling customers what the special dish is each day.

After his work is done, McGill said he likes to go home, relax and watch cartoons.

McGill was among the first Greene Valley residents to transition to a community home in 2010, Young said.

A Win-Win Situation

"Integrated employment can be a game changer for a person living with a disability," Parriott said.

"People love to work, and they really love getting a paycheck. The integrated setting helps people make new friends and improves their self-esteem and independence. The relationships that people develop with their coworkers in integrated settings help them to make a deeper connection to their community."

Integrated employment benefits more than the DIDD-supported individual, however, according to Young.

"Its a win-win situation for everybody," Young said. "They love the paycheck and build relationships. We see positive change in the individual and smaller businesses that are hard-pressed get help for a few hours a week."

Greene County Road Superintendent David Weems said he is glad his department participates in DIDDs community employment programs.

"It helps us out. Rodger (Moses) does a good job with maintenance and janitorial work, and it frees up other employees to do other tasks," Weems said.

Because Moses wage is dictated by the state, it is a lower wage than a Greene County government employee would earn for the same task, providing a cost-savings, Weems added.

Young said she hopes other employers throughout the community will see the benefits to offering job opportunities to DIDD-supported people.

"The barrier is just getting employers to see," she said. We [are] not going to seek jobs the individual cant do, and they always have a job coach there to help."

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