Federal Grant Will Pave Way For Severely Disabled To Work

By George Ford, Reporter

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - A $100,000 federal grant will help Iowa pave the way for severely disabled residents to be mainstreamed into the workplace.

Iowa, Oregon and Tennessee were selected by the U.S. Department of Labor after a national competition to receive the initial "Employment First" grants. The Employment First State Leadership Mentor Program is designed to fully include people with significant disabilities in employment and community life.

Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services will lead the initiative to align state policies and funding to assist residents with significant disabilities find work where the majority of individuals employed do not have disabilities. Iowa will get $100,000 from fiscal 2011 funding and the grant will be renewed with fiscal 2012 funds.

In a Monday conference call with reporters, Kathy Martinez, assistant U.S. Secretary of Labor, said she knows from personal experience that many people with severe disabilities and their families too often believe they are unable to work or unable to work in the community. She said one of the main goals of Employment First is raising expectations.

"Individuals with disabilities and their families often settle for programs or services that do not encourage them to participate fully in the mainstream of community life," said Martinez, who has been blind since birth. "I was somebody who was channeled into a lock factory. I don't think there was any hope that I would be employed in an integrated way.

"Research clearly documents that people with the most significant disabilities can work in integrated jobs within the community and earn minimum wage or above."

Chris Button, supervisory policy advisor in the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy, said states applying for the grants were required to say why they wanted to participate in the initiative, what they have done in the area of integrated employment, and what their goals were moving forward.

"We had a plethora of really excellent applications in this nationwide competition," Button said. "The states that were selected had really stellar applications laying out what they hope to do. We felt that each state really believes they can change the direction of their programs."

Richard Luecking, senior policy fellow with the Office of Disability Employment Policy, said those with significant disabilities often receive Social Security Disability Insurance payments, but often have the desire to work.

"They are people who have to go to great lengths to convince their families, people who help them, and potential employers that work is a good option for them," Luecking said. "There are plenty of examples to show that people who want to work should be given the opportunity to work in their communities."
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