With the recent passing of SB104 by the Kentucky legislature, Amanda Owen, executive director for Puzzle Pieces, said individuals with intellectual disabilities will have greater access to entering the workforce.
SB104, signed by Gov. Andy Beshear, will implement an “Employee First” policy through the development of the Employment First Council, of which Owen has been appointed to.
The council, according to Katie Whaley, chairperson, has existed since 2018 through executive orders. However, SB104 helps solidify its presence and allows it to become more effective in its goals to normalize individuals with intellectual disabilities entering into the workforce as a first priority.
“One thing this current council looked at is that relying on executive orders could create a disincentive,” she said. ”It’s hard to maintain a priority expectation and service provision with people when that priority might disappear every two years, so having this codified was a priority of this council.”
However, she said, “there’s a lot to be figured out.”
The main purposes that the council is charged with, according to Whaley, is addressing and eliminating disincentives for employment of people with disabilities, developing resources and outreach for families, self-advocates, providers and employers on the benefits of integrated employment, increase employment opportunities and encourage integrated employment for employers.
The goal is to work alongside service agencies, like Puzzle Pieces, to implement more job training, as well as outreach to educational systems, teachers and families to ensure information about seeking employment and employment services is available, as well as making sure families have access to answers for questions about employment by increasing education.
“Not knowing those answers, a lot of times, keeps people from even looking for work because they’re afraid of what might happen,” Whaley said.
Common questions might be whether or not an individual loses Medicaid or other benefits due to employment.
Education, she said, is key to making sure employment is an expectation and normalized path for individuals with intellectual disabilities.
“As a Commonwealth, we have said that it is important to look at people with disabilities as having the opportunity to be successful employees, like we do anyone else in our state,” she said. “This priority hopefully will help shift that expectation for people to give them access to good jobs and earning a fair wage.”
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Owen said the Employment First policy helps to consider employment as the first opportunity that should be sought for individuals with disabilities post-graduation.
“We were looking at day-training services or when they would graduate, they would just go into a supported role within the community or volunteer work — we weren’t really thinking of them being employed,” she said.
Having the policy passed as law, she said, “it provides the expectations — it puts the bar there and challenges employers, teachers and families.”
Everything is still in developmental stages, however, she said, in how the council will work to outreach and educate to ensure individuals with intellectual disabilities graduating high school are placed into a path of becoming employed or seeking higher education, whatever their desires and goals might be.
“This law kind of puts an expectation … to make us more aligned in the direction we need to be going,” she said. “The barrier is changing the mindset.”
Changing the mindset, she said, takes having a seat at the table in the discussion of economic development. The passing of SB104 does just that.
“This law validates us,” she said. “Now we just have to get businesses, educators and families to view it the same way we do.”
Right now, Owen said Puzzle Pieces is having success getting its clients employed through its job training services and is working with more employers locally than it ever has before.
This, Whaley said, is just one more step in the right direction in helping to better integrate individuals with disabilities into all aspects of society.
“I think diversity in the workplace has become a much bigger issue that people are paying attention to, and so our goal is to make sure that disability is seen as a part of that idea of diversity and that it’s not just the workplace — that there’s access to lots of parts of society,” she said. “This helps move that forward, that we know people with disabilities have so much more to offer than they have been given credit for.”
Christie Netherton, email@example.com, 270-691-7360
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