GCDD Kicks off Second Take Your Legislator to Work Day

The Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities (GCDD) kicked off its second annual Take Your Legislator to Work Day (TYLTWD) in October 2016 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.

“We were excited to bring this effort back because it was a great success last year,” said Dawn Alford, GCDD’s public policy director. “It went a long way to forming a legislator’s understanding of how beneficial employment of people with disabilities is as well as building relationships with their constituents.”

While many of the same legislators and employees with disabilities met again this year, new faces to the initiative supported TYLTWD’s goal of asking employees with disabilities to invite their legislators to visit their workplaces. The program demonstrates first-hand the power of community-integrated employment for people with disabilities by showcasing their skills and talents in a work environment.

Take Your Legislator to Work Day
This year, the efforts of TYLTWD also hope to revitalize the Employment First Georgia Coalition, a 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.

Last year, the Coalition put out a call to Employment First Georgia members and the general public looking for Georgians with disabilities who work in the communities that they love. Then they were encouraged to sign up for TYLTWD. At the time of publication, TYLTWD has held seven legislative visits around the State.

Many 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. Showing decision makers the impact of competitive and meaningful employment was the chance of a lifetime.

Incoming Representative-Elect Renita Shannon (D-District 84) participated in her first TYLTWD with Jaehn Clare, executive director of VSA arts of Georgia in Midtown Atlanta.

“I thought this was a great organized effort to help legislators meet individuals with different kinds of disabilities who are proactive citizens who want to be employed and contribute to the community,” said Clare.
VSA arts of Georgia is the statewide organization for bringing the arts to people with disabilities, people with low incomes and other at risk populations.

“It was a great experience,” said Rep. Shannon. “Jaehn talked to me about what it was like having representation in many different occupations for individuals with disabilities. We also talked about the lack of accommodations needed for folks with a disability and how people probably assume that if you have a disability you will need a lot more accommodations than you actually do. A lot revolved around how important it is to actually have representation, to have that visibility for people. A disability shouldn’t prevent you from fulfilling your passions.”

This one-on-one approach that leaves a deeper understanding of people with disabilities and their contributions to the workforce is exactly what TYLTWD intends to achieve.
“This is a huge goal of TYLTWD,” adds Alford. “We are stakeholders and we want advocates, families and self-advocates to build yearlong relationships with their legislators. It’s a true give and take where there is mutual respect and understanding of each other’s abilities.”

A longtime supporter of GCDD and the disability community, Senator John Albers (R-District 56) spent time at Milton High School in North Atlanta with freshman Jacob Moore. Moore’s mother, Heidi, serves on GCDD.

Jacob is currently enrolled in the school’s Intellectual Disabilities Program, which has two initiatives called Community Based Instruction (CBI) and Community Based Vocational Instructional (CBVI) programs. In CBVI, students participate in job sites on and off campus to gain vocational training that will support them in post-secondary efforts – whether it’s higher education or employment.

At the school, Jacob works in the mail room. It is just one of the many jobs that the CBVI program offers. “We have jobs that are clerical, some kids work in the cafeteria, and recently, we just opened up a coffee shop where much of this training takes place,” said Cynthia Johnson, instructional lead teacher at Milton High. Additionally, the program has offsite training through the fast-food chain, Zaxby’s.

At TYLTWD, Jacob got a chance to show Albers the importance of this program as they spent time together delivering mail and meeting students and teachers around the school.

As long-time family friends, “Jacob was proud to introduce [Sen. Albers] to fellow students and the administrators. This friendship over the years has helped Sen. Albers understand the needs of the disability community via Jacob’s life,” said Heidi. “At the same time, it was great to have the senator meet the staff, students and peer mentors who are a part of the program. [Milton High] is doing a lot around integration of students with and without disabilities.”

The Big Takeaway
“The impression I was seeking to make on Rep. Shannon when she visited was how important it is for people with disabilities to have a choice about their lives – the same way people without disabilities have,” said Clare.

Additionally, added Clare, it was important for her to showcase that the arts can be an area of gainful employment for people with disabilities as well.

And by allowing Sen. Albers to meet with Jacob and other students at Milton High, Heidi hoped to “see more funding for home and community-based waivers. We have been very blessed to have the waiver for years, and I see what a huge positive impact it has had on Jacob’s development and his ability to communicate and socialize,” she said.

With a waitlist of over 8,000, “This opportunity should be available for every family. We need to find a way to allow those families to have access to these services so individuals can reach their full potential and give back to the community.”

Employment First
It has been about ten 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.

What does being an Employment First state mean? Upon becoming law, state agencies would have to reprioritize their policies and funding so that employment becomes a priority option for every working-age Georgian with a disability, regardless of the significance of their disability.
Currently, 46 out of 50 states have some efforts focused on Employment First.

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 Services (HCBS) settings rule from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services – all 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 items 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 transportation, education, housing and other areas.

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 legislators and other decision makers on what issues matter most. When it comes to employment, “we are also hoping to revitalize the Employment First Georgia Coalition and would like volunteers and advocates and people who want to support the cause,” said Alford.

During the legislative session, GCDD will be hosting Advocacy Day for Employment First on Feb. 23, 2017 at the Georgia State Capitol in Downtown Atlanta.

“You cannot underestimate the impact of forming a connection with a constituent who represents an issue you are working on,” said Rep. Shannon. “This initiative has heightened my awareness and I will be able to see things from a different perspective on issues about people with disabilities.

“But I encourage all advocates, families and the community to stay proactive and contact me or your legislator if there is legislation that impacts the disability community. We have to be partners in order to make positive and affective change.”

TYLTWD visits were also made by:
Senator Nan Orrock (D-District 36) visited Scott Bales at the GA Department of Agriculture in Atlanta on December 16.
Representative Chuck Martin (R-District 49) visited Liz Persaud at Georgia Tech’s Tools for Life in Atlanta on December 22.

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