People with Disabilities Take Georgia Legislators to Work
“It was important for me to meet people with disabilities in the employment environment and see what impact they have in the workplace,” said Rep. Scot Turner (R – Holly Springs), who has a son on the autism spectrum and also is a longtime advocate for people with disabilities.
Rep. Turner participated in Take Your Legislator to Work Day (TYLTWD), hosted by Employment First Georgia (EFG) and supported by the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities (GCDD). The initiative, held for the first time in the State, was an exercise to bring together legislators with people with developmental disabilities and employers who are supporting this effort in their districts.
“The idea behind TYLTWD is to allow Georgia state legislators to meet people with disabilities at their place of work and share in their workday experiences,” said D’Arcy Robb, co-coordinator of Employment First Georgia.
Georgia’s TYLTWD kicked off in October 2015 to commemorate National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). The objective of this campaign is to raise awareness about the benefits of hiring individuals with disabilities and the belief that employment and successful careers should be the expected and preferred outcomes of all publicly funded services for individuals with disabilities, i.e., Employment First.
“It’s not just someone talking about it, it’s not just statistics on a page. Legislators are actually going to work with someone with a disability to see how it works,” said Robb.
The goal of Take Your Legislator to Work Day is to ask employees with disabilities to invite their legislators to visit their workplace to demonstrate first-hand the power of community-integrated employment for people with disabilities by showcasing their skills and talents in a work environment.
Rep. Turner went to Canton-based Sweetwater Growers, a hydroponic farm growing live basil and micro-greens throughout the US and Canada. He met with employee Chad Roberts who has become invaluable to the company’s everyday operations.
“Chad plays an important role in the day-to-day functionality of the company. And when you look at Chad and his success, you see the strong family, employer and caregiver support. It’s a team effort to make Employment First a reality for people with disabilities,” he said.
Take Your Legislator to Work Day
The efforts of TYLTWD started with the Employment First Georgia Coalition, a 300-strong group of advocates including people with disabilities, family members, service providers and advocates who believe that all people with disabilities have the ability to work and that Georgia needs an Employment First policy.
The coalition put out a call to Employment First Georgia members and the general public looking for Georgians with disabilities that work in the communities that they love. Then they were encouraged to sign up for TYLTWD.
“With EFG, we’re going to them with a problem that the State doesn’t do enough to help people with disabilities go to work,” said Robb. “But we’re also coming to them with a solution and saying ‘People with disabilities can work. Here is your constituent working and now we need to make sure that all Georgians are able to do that.’ ”
And the legislative response has been overwhelmingly positive. At the time of this writing, EFG had 11 legislative visits that were completed and five more scheduled while three were pending and 24 more were being arranged. If all these schedules align, over 40 legislators will have visited their constituents with disabilities at work.
Along with Turner, many other connections between legislators, employees and businesses were formed to drive home the message of Employment First and the need for competitive employment for people with disabilities.
Georgia House of Representatives Majority Leader Jon G. Burn (R – Newington) participated in TYLTWD in Effingham County at Edwards Interiors Aerospace, a 200-employee company that makes interiors for Gulf Stream airplanes.
Rep. Burn got to meet Lindsey Kussow, who is helping modernize the company’s purchase orders because the company had rooms full of crates of paper taking up significant real estate to store these records. Kussow helped create a digital record-keeping system, which helped save the company a lot of money and improve organization.
“We want our legislators to see the value and contribution people with disabilities make in the workplace,” said Robb.
Sens. John Wilkinson (R - District 50) and Butch Miller (R - District 49) visited the Project SEARCH site in Hall County where they met a number of employees, including Adrianna Becerra.
Becerra, 19, is a mail room tech at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville, GA through Project SEARCH. She organizes and distributes mail for the hospital, which has allowed her to become stronger in skills such as memorization and socialization.
“There is a lot to remember in this job and a lot more to it than most people realize,” she said. “I’m very social so I really like delivering the mail and meeting new people. Working in the mail room has pushed me to get better at memorizing, be at work every day and on time.”
Showing decision-makers the impact of competitive and meaningful employment was the chance of a lifetime.
“I liked the fact that I got to show [the legislators] that people with disabilities can work just like anybody else and shouldn’t be sheltered,” said Becerra. “It’s important that they know we can do the same things other people can do and we can live independent lives.”
After spending a day at the job site, Wilkinson said his biggest takeaway was that, “you could count on them. The employers were boasting about the attendance record, attention to detail and positive attitude – all things that make a huge difference in the workplace for everyone. These are great things to employers.”
Why It’s Important Now
It has been about eight years since advocates began actively seeking an Employment First policy for the State of Georgia. In 2015, the House of Representatives formed the Employment First and Post-Secondary Education Study Committee to look at these issues.
“Our hope is that out of this committee we will get a piece of legislation for the 2016 session that would make Georgia an Employment First state,” said Robb.
What does being an Employment First state mean? Upon becoming law, state agencies would have to reprioritize their policies and funding so employment becomes a priority option for every working age Georgian with a disability, regardless of the significance of their disability. But it also includes a culture change.
“Many of our state systems prioritize segregated services for people with disabilities and there are mindsets that are institutionalized about what people can and can’t do. So it’s a process. I would say I absolutely want [legislators] to support our Employment First legislation but even more so than that, for the long haul I want them to support an Employment First culture,” said Robb.
Currently, 32 out of the 50 states have an Employment First policy.
How It All Works Together
At the same time, other federal legislation and mandates like the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act and the Home and Community-Based Settings (HCBS) Rule from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services – all which were passed down federally in 2014 – are setting the tone of integrated and inclusive communities, which includes Employment First practices in a state.
WIOA and the HCBS Rule are two really big things on the disability landscape happening right now for people with disabilities. The HCBS rule declared that people with disabilities should receive services in integrated and inclusive communities not only for employment, but also in transportation, education, housing and other areas.
“The rule says that it is not okay for people with disabilities or people who are aging or people who get any other kind of services to be in an institution and be isolated. When it comes to employment, HCBS as well as WIOA are very supportive of Employment First,” said Robb.
Here in Georgia, it is a priority to want everyone to look at employment as the first option for all working age people with disabilities. All agencies work together but approach it from a different angle. The question behind pushing Employment First is how to get more people with disabilities into the community and how to get them employed just like anybody else.
Like any policy efforts, advocacy remains the strongest way for the community to engage with the legislators and other decision-makers on what issues matter most.
When it comes to Employment First, “there are a myriad of little pieces that could be changed. We need to take things like Project SEARCH, which has been a huge success, to a bigger stage. We need to be able to do customized employment and discovery. And some of these things are in the beginning stages. We really want it to kick start all of that and give it a centerpiece for all of these best employment practices in Georgia. And mostly, the advocates need to keep pushing it forward,” said Robb.
During the legislative session, GCDD and EFG will be hosting Advocacy Day for Employment First on Feb. 11, 2016.
Legislators welcome advocates and suggest that getting involved and building a relationship with them is an important step in advocating. “Tell us what is going on, be specific on what is lacking and come with potential ideas,” said Turner, who will also be sponsoring the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act bill in the 2016 Georgia General Assembly.
What an Employment First Georgia will look like will depend a lot on the legislative session and the voice of the advocates. But through the TYLTWD initiative, legislators who have met employees with disabilities have taken away the most important message of all.
“It is important to realize the potential of all people,” said Wilkinson. “We should not dwell on disabilities, but focus on abilities and their contributions.”
Thanks to all our legislators who took time out of their busy schedules to participate in GCDD’s TYLTWD. For a complete list of the participants, see page 31 or visit our web page for the most up-to-date information:
Hall County Project SEARCH intern Hannah Peterson with Sens. Butch Miller (left) and John Wilkinson during their Take Your Legislator to Work Day visit.
Quron Dixon, a graduate of Fulton County Schools Learning Internship for Future Employment (L.I.F.E.) greets Sen. Donzella James at his place of employment, Restaurant Associates. Dixon has been employed for three years and Chef Tom noted he was
one of his best employees.
David Stockstill (second from left) started work at Olson Architects as an assistant. Stockstill had worked hard at Southern Regional Technical College mastering the trade of drafting. Rep. Darlene Taylor (center) joined him as a part of Take Your Legislator to Work Day, sponsored by GCDD in collaboration with EFG. Olson Architects has given him the opportunity to try out his skills and learn from the experts.
Rep. Jon Burns visited Lindsey Kussow, who works at Edwards Interiors Aerospace in Springfield. Burns was impressed not only by Kussow’s skills in organizing files, but also by the growth she witnessed in herself after getting her job. She changed from a shy young lady to an outgoing, confident woman ready to take on any task assigned to her.
Garrett Chason (back, left), who works at Publix, rode in the Thomasville Christmas parade with Rep. Amy Carter, Rep. Darlene Taylor and Sen. Dean Burke.
Rep. Bob Bryant (center) visited BJ Clark (left) and Michael Burris (right) at the office of the Chatham County Clerk of Superior Court to see how they streamline the process of digitizing documents. Chatham County Clerk of Superior Court Dan Massey recognized the opportunity for these two very capable men to gain meaningful employment. Both Rep. Bryant and Massey emphasized the importance of change starting at the local level, creating a working model for others.
State Rep. Mickey Stephens (center) visited Memorial University Medical Center in Savannah, GA and met Jazzmine Smith (left) and Shyeeta Kelly (right), two women who have overcome obstacles to create their own success. Rep. Stephens, who taught special education for many years prior to becoming a state representative, agreed and voiced his fervent support for supporting employment for people with disabilities.
Memorial is a prime example of how we all benefit as a whole when people are given the opportunity to make a contribution, and the Coastal Center for Developmental Services is proud to have been a part of their success!
Sen. Bruce Broadrick visited Brett Wable at Shaw Industries in Dalton, GA. Wable is a housekeeper for Plant UC and his responsibilities include emptying the recycling containers throughout the plant, bailing cardboard and plastic, running the sweeper and cleaning up damaged goods.
Rep. Bill Hitchens visited Billy Behrens, who has worked at a leading manufacturer in Savannah for over two years. When his job required him to use a computer, he took on the challenge without hesitation. Though he had no computer skills in the beginning, Behrens closed out over 73,000 work orders for his company and won nine performance awards!
Sen. Fran Millar, along with Rep. Scot Turner, Rep. Lee Hawkins and Sen. Renee Unterman announced their intentions to file legislation in support of the ABLE Act in Georgia on Dec. 3 at the Georgia State Capitol. Be sure to follow GCDD updates during the legislative session and join us for the ABLE Act Advocacy Day.
Take Your Legislator to Work Day Visits
Thanks to all our participants in this important initiative. Here is the most current list as of press time:
• Chad Roberts visited by Rep. Scot Turner at Sweetwater Growers in Canton.
• Jordan Huffman visited by Rep. Mike Dudgeon and Senator Michael Williams at Roseati’s Pizza in Cumming.
• Bob McGarry visited by Rep. Bill Werkheiser at Living Independence for Everyone, Inc. in Savannah.
• Brian Mosley, Sarah Parker, and Willie Jones visited by Senator Harold Jones and Rep. Wayne Howard at Walton Options in Augusta.
• Jazzmine Smith and Shyeeta Kelly visited by Rep. Mickey Stephens at Memorial Hospital in Savannah.
• Lindsey Kussow visited by House Majority Leader Jon Burns at Edwards Interiors Aerospace in Springfield.
• Billy Behrens visited by Rep. Bill Hitchens at Gulfstream Aerospace Corporation in Savannah.
• BJ Clark visited by Rep. Bob Bryant at Chatham County Courthouse in Savannah.
• Myles Johnson visited by Senator Michael Williams at Chick-Fil-A in Suwanee.
• Mia Nobbie visited by Senator Bill Cowsert at St. Mary’s Hospital in Athens.
• Project SEARCH Hall County interns visited by Senator Butch Miller, Senator John Wilkinson, Rep. Emory Dunahoo and Rep. Lee Hawkins at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville.
• David Stockstill visited by Rep. Darlene Taylor at Olson Architects in Thomasville.
• Christie Entrekin visited by Senator Jeff Mullis at Christie’s Creations in Trion.
• Quron Dixon visited by Senator Donzella James at Café Aquaria in Atlanta.
• Janeanne Napoli visited by Senator Frank Ginn at University of Georgia Law Library in Athens.
• David Gwynn visited by Rep. Joe Wilkinson at Atlanta Neurology in Atlanta.
• Adrienne O’Prey visited by Rep. Michael Caldwell at Resurgens in Kennesaw.
• Robbie Huff visited by Rep. Ronnie Mabra at disABILITY LINK in Tucker.
• Brett Wable visited by Rep. Bruce Broadrick at Shaw Industries in Dalton.
• James Jordan visited by Rep. Scott Holcomb at Krispy Kreme in Doraville.
• Garrett Chason discussed his career with Rep. Amy Carter, Rep. Darlene Taylor and Senator Dean Burke in Thomasville.
• Christopher Varnerin visited by Rep. Pedro Marin at TGI Friday’s in Buford.
• Corbett Dishman visited by Rep. John Yates at Partners II Pizza in Fayetteville.
• Anthony Emerson visited by Rep. Christian Coomer at Euharlee Elementary in Kingston.
• Mike Melton visited by Rep. Beth Beskin at disABILITY LINK in Tucker.
• Bobby Chapman visited by Senator P. K. Martin at Kroger in Lawrenceville.
At press time, the following individuals are scheduling their visits to take their legislators to work:
• Liz Persaud of Georgia Tech in Atlanta.
• Xantha Burghardt of Tow ATL in Buckhead.
• Minna Hong of the Shepherd Center in Atlanta.
• Alicia Hardy of Hardee’s in Dalton.
• Chester Grant & Eric Foster of Thomaston-Upson County Board of Education.
• Christopher Bivins, self-employed, of Moultrie.
• Project SEARCH Bartow County interns at Cartersville Medical Center.
• Viola Wilson of Walton Options in Augusta.
• Jessica Luna of Mulberry Elementary in Auburn.
• Katrina Parsons and Carl Teem of disABILITY LINK in Tucker.
Visit our web page which will be updated as new visits are confirmed or scheduled: gcdd.org/public-policy/take-your-legislator-to-work-day-a-success.html
Read more in the winter 2016 edition of Making A Difference here: