Real jobs sought for Alabamians with disabilities

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — An advocacy group is calling for the phasing out of workshops where Alabama residents with disabilities are grouped together to perform repetitive tasks at less than minimum wage.

The workshops receive taxpayer funding to train the people to get competitive employment and become less dependent on the government. “In truth, that almost never happens,” Ellen Gillespie, executive director of the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, said at a news conference Monday.

The advocacy group, based at the University of Alabama, is calling for legislation to support employment in regular jobs and for a change in how taxpayer money is spent so that it encourages employment with job coaches and other support methods rather than funding the workshops run by nonprofit organizations.

“Telling people who have worked hard all week and people who do not understand money that they should be proud that they are getting a paycheck, in my opinion, is exploitation,” Gillespie.

In response to the news conference, State Mental Health Commissioner Jim Reddoch said moving people with disabilities into regular jobs is a national trend, and it is being propelled by the Americans with Disabilities Act and by the federal Medicaid Agency phasing out funding for the workshops.

Courtney Tarver, the state’s associate mental health commissioner for developmental disabilities, said Alabama is at the low end of the states when it comes to getting people with disabilities into regular jobs, but the Department of Mental Health is working with the state Department of Rehabilitation Services and others to change that.

Currently, taxpayers are funding 4,500 people with disabilities who attend day programs that have workshops. “We believe a significant number of those individuals can work with the right support,” Tarver said.

Darren Morris, 44, of Montgomery is an example. He works part-time for Walgreens, stocking shelves and running the cash register. He talks proudly about the independence that comes with a paycheck and he encourages more companies to try hiring someone with disabilities.

“We need to the opportunity to show people we can do it,” he said.

The push for regular jobs is the latest step in a 40-year transition in Alabama that began with a federal judge requiring the state to move thousands of people with disabilities out of five major institutions and into residential settings in communities throughout the state. Then they were provided with centers to learn and develop skills and to work at jobs where they were segregated with others who had disabilities. Now, the move is toward total integration into the community with regular jobs.

A sign of that change will occur Tuesday when the governor holds a ceremony in Montgomery to recognize businesses that have hired people with disabilities and to honor those who have stood out in those hobs.

To try to accelerate the change, the disabilities advocacy group will pursue an “Employment First” bill in the legislative session starting Jan. 14. The bill supports employment in the general workforce as the first and preferred employment outcome for people with any type of disability, Associate Director James Tucker said.

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