Georgia Evolution Conference Reimagines Opportunities for People with Disabilities
Organized jointly by the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency (GVRA), Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD), Georgia Association of People Supporting Employment First (GAPSE) and Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities (GCDD), over 375 attendees came together at the conference center at the Wyndham Hotel in Peachtree City, GA for the first ever Georgia Evolution Conference in November 2016.
The day and a half long conference comprised mostly of primary service providers/direct support professionals also catered to individuals with disabilities and their families in keeping with the conference theme: Reimagining Opportunities for Georgians with Disabilities.
In fact, apart from the opening presentations that were attended by all, many of the sessions were also geared toward different attendee categories based on their roles – executive directors and board members, middle managers and supervisors, service providers and direct support staff and individuals with disabilities and their families. Fifteen additional sessions covered relevant and timely topics such as networking to community partnerships, learning how to provide employment services to maintaining friendships.
The conference aimed at giving providers the tools they need to support all people with disabilities in careers and in the community, including follow-up technical assistance; educating and empowering families and individuals with disabilities and engaging them as active partners in this time of change; and building critical partnerships and collaboration between all players in Georgia’s disability community.
“There is a lot that is changing in the world of disability and employment right now and a lot of it is exciting, but with any change people need to learn how to operate under that new change,” says conference planner D’Arcy Robb, special projects coordinator at Vocational Rehabilitation Program, a division of GVRA.
To support this, conference speaker David Hoff, national public policy expert at the Institute for Community Inclusion at University of Massachusetts at Boston presented a State of the Nation: Disability and Employment Policy session.
Specializing in disability employment policy, Hoff addressed important yet complex issues in the disability arena. At the conference, he discussed the Home and Community-Based Services settings rule; the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act; and the Employment First movement by simplifying those topics and how they pertained to Georgia. Hoff also offered a “user friendly” approach to understanding what the critical pieces of each of these game-changing policies are and what they mean for people with disabilities and the community.
Other presenters included providers who have evolved from traditional service models to integrated, innovative employment; national subject matter experts on employment for people with disabilities; and individuals and families who have made a transition from facility-based services to integrated employment.
To expand its reach, the team behind the conference kept the registration cost at only $50 per person – unheard of for a conference of this caliber. “We did that very deliberately because we know that it takes a lot to come to a conference, to travel and take time off work,” says Robb. “That part was intentional, to be affordable and accessible to as many people as possible.”
Robb credits Ed James, director of Capability Development at GVRA, for initiating discussions with DBHDD Assistant Director Frank Kirkland, GCDD Executive Director Eric Jacobson and GAPSE President Phil Chase, on hosting a conference together. “I had the pleasure of being the main conference organizer, but a lot of people were involved in making it such a great success. This really was a ‘how’ conference … not an end in and of itself, but a piece on this path that we are all on.”
It is a well-known fact now in the developmental disabilities community that it is possible for all interested people with disabilities to work and federal laws are in place to promote this. But, many people don’t know how to go about it. To assist, the conference focused on giving service providers the tools to support everyone interested in self-employment or working in an integrated job in the community regardless of the significance of their disability. The other important audience that the conference was geared toward was people with disabilities and their family members.
“It is about their lives and the many changes taking place but people can only take advantage of it if they understand what the changes are and the opportunities for them,” shares Robb. “We are making many changes in law driven by changes in possibility. More is possible for people than we used to know. Fifty years ago, it was cutting edge and revolutionary for people with significant disabilities to live in the community instead of an institution, but now we know people don’t need to be in day programs or sheltered workshops.”
Speaking to that very sentiment were Joshua Wells and his father John Wells who welcomed attendees to the conference. Joshua has been employed at Red Robin, a restaurant chain, for the past 11 years; and, he recently began working a second job at Kentucky Fried Chicken. Earlier in his life, Joshua attended a facility-based program for people with disabilities. His was a story of successfully making the leap to community employment, clearly demonstrating the opportunities and lifestyle that individuals with disabilities can strive to achieve today.
As for next steps, GVRA, in collaboration with DBHDD, DCH and Workforce Development has applied for Vision Quest under the Employment First State Leadership Mentoring Program (EFSLMP) federal grant. In order to apply, there must be partnership between major state agencies demonstrating commitment toward making the local system more employment friendly. If approved, the grant will pay for national subject matter experts, like the speakers that were presenters at the conference, to work with state agencies in providing further technical assistance and support to all parties involved, in truly reimagining and affecting the employment opportunities available for individuals with disabilities in Georgia.
All related material from the Georgia Evolution Conference is now available at: http://www.cvent.com/events/the-georgia-evolution-conference-re-imagining-opportunity-for-individuals-with-disabilities/custom-17-6eaeacc42210434f84fcb122f4e0e36a.aspx
Listen to the audio version of the magazine by clicking on the orange "Play" button below:
Spanish Language Version (Versión en Español)
GCDD se complace en expandir nuestro alcance a otras comunidades ofreciendo nuestra revista trimestral en español.
Haga clic en la imagen abajo para ver la revista en línea.