by Troy Allen
Working and interacting in our communities is an expected and integral part of life. But for many individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, participation can come with additional challenges, though not insurmountable.
This is one reason accelerated efforts are under way in Memphis and across the state to ensure that people with disabilities have access to meaningful employment and community engagement.
In 2014 there were 20,323 Shelby County residents age 18-64 with disabilities employed in the labor force according to U.S. Census data. There were 3,176 people with a disability in the labor force who were unemployed. The universe of this data is the civilian non-institutionalized population.
There were 45,703 people in Shelby County with disabilities not in the labor force and 98,148 who didn’t have disabilities outside of the labor force. People not in the labor force include students, homemakers, institutionalized people, and others.
These numbers are not exclusive to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities including autism, MS, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, etc. However, it is helpful to know that more than 20,000 local residents with hearing, vision, cognitive, ambulatory, self-care, and independent living difficulties — Census Bureau criteria — are working. The total Shelby County estimated workforce was 437,764 in 2014.
Census Bureau figures provide a broad overview, but are not a precise representation of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities who want a chance to work. People outside the labor force with several specific types of disabilities are not surveyed distinct from unemployed people with the census classification of disability who aren’t working or seeking a job.
This means that the people SRVS, and other provider agencies, are trying to help find employment almost certainly are not clearly captured in the census data. However, service providers and state government move forward with employment and other community involvement efforts.
Madison Haywood Developmental Services in Jackson, Tennessee, for example, has had an employment program for 43 years. The center has 14 people employed at 14 businesses, according to Susie Hudson, day services director for MHDS.
In Madison County, Hudson says pay rates are regularly above minimum wage to start. “The big food chains and grocery stores are most familiar with the benefits of employing people with disabilities,” she says, “but development in the smaller mom and pop businesses is looking up given information on tax credits.”
In 2015, SRVS, which supports 1,200 people in the Memphis area with disabilities, closed its sheltered workshop to embrace full community employment, and created a Community Based Services program for the people it supports. CBS is a citywide day service designed to provide meaningful person-centered activities in community settings. Included are recreational opportunities and activities with employment themes, such as volunteering and job searches.
When the workshop closed, 110 people worked there. As SRVS’ Community Employment Services program seeks placement for all the former workshop employees, there are now 41 people from the workshop in good paying jobs across the city with employers that include AutoZone, Kroger, Express Vending, and American Stairways.
In a new effort, starting this year, the state of Tennessee has approved funding for 1,700 people statewide to enroll in a program called Employment and Community First CHOICES.
This initiative will focus on promoting integrated employment and community living as the first and preferred outcome for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, according to Amy Gonzalez, state director of Employment and Day Services for the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD).
Everyone should have the opportunity for full participation in their community. People with disabilities are showing by example every day that they make a difference.
Troy Allen is director of Community Based Services for nonprofit SRVS, Tennessee’s largest provider of support for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
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