I was one of those college students who had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. So, after graduation day, I worked a variety of different jobs. I was a childcare worker at a provider agency working with troubled youth. I worked on a political campaign, then did public relations for a community recreation center, then was a television producer. Meanwhile, in my down time I developed a mild obsession with purpose-driven career development. I can’t tell you how many times I took aptitude tests and re-read “What Color is Your Parachute?”
Some years later, once I’d figured out my own parachute, I started learning about career development in the broad context of the disability community. I got to visit Project SEARCH sites and saw how the interns rotated between job sites during the year, giving them no fewer than three internships and assisted them in securing jobs by the end of the year. I learned about inclusive post-secondary education and saw that the students’ employment outcomes eclipsed those of their peers. I got to attend Discovery Camp hosted by Marc Gold & Associates and learned how to identify the contributions each individual person can make and then to connect those contributions with a career path. Most importantly, I got to meet people with disabilities building unique and fulfilling career paths. There was Lindsey, who single-handedly digitized and organized a warehouse full of blueprints for a manufacturer in South Georgia. And Chad, whose meticulousness and love of working with his hands was put to good use in an organic greenhouse.
Sometimes people question the idea that there is a career for every working age person who wants one. I think the key to that is to broaden your thinking. For example, I’ll share the story about a young man with disabilities who lives in rural Maine and loves hiking. His business is hiking to the end of the Appalachian Trail with ice-cold towels that he then sells to hikers.
And of course, entrepreneurship isn’t limited to people who love the outdoors. The first annual awards ceremony for Synergies Work this past spring featured entrepreneurs with disabilities who are doing everything from making artisanal soaps to running a video game company to starting a social justice organization. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that many jobs can be done with flexibility and creativity. That’s a powerful lesson that can be applied to building careers that fit, for everyone.
This summer, I was given the opportunity to speak before a Senate study committee about expanding Georgia’s workforce. That gave me the chance to present the often-overlooked reality that our community is an under-tapped talent pool. Actually, two talent pools: Georgians with disabilities, and their family members.
Most working age Georgians with intellectual or developmental disabilities (I/DD) want jobs, but according to the National Core Indicators, only 13% have one. And 54% of those who do not have a paid job in the community want a job. Those statistics are very problematic to me. We know that having a disability, no matter how significant its impact, does not stop someone from building a career. And we have a pool of approximately 149,000 people with I/DD spread across our state who are eager to enter the workforce. And that number is much higher when you include working age Georgians who have other types of disabilities. What a golden moment to support Georgians with disabilities to step into career opportunities.
Then, consider the family members. The day after I presented to the Senate committee, I was at an advocacy event where a mother spoke up about her fears that she would have to leave her job as a nurse in order to support her child. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard a version of that story: that someone left their job, turned down a promotion, or feared they would need to quit, in order to support their family member with a disability. It’s an incredibly hard situation for the individuals involved – and by siphoning people out of the workforce, it’s bad news for Georgia’s economy.
So what do we do? We invest in Georgians with disabilities and their families. We get rid of the antiquated practice of paying people with disabilities subminimum wage. We adopt State as Model Employer, which directs state agencies to actively seek to include Georgians with disabilities in their workforce. And, we invest in waivers and wages by fully funding the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities’ (DBHDD) rate study for the NOW and COMP waivers. That rate study will boost the wages of hard-working Direct Support Professionals (DSPs). Once those wages go up, DSP vacancy rates will go down and service quality will go up. Having a quality DSP workforce is critical to give Georgians with disabilities and their families the stability they need – and with that stability, more and more Georgians with disabilities and family members will be able to focus on their own careers.
Georgia’s disability support system is very unstable., No wonder that careers for many people with I/DD and their family members get short shrift. It’s another lesson so many individuals and employers learned during the pandemic – when a family is in crisis, or narrowly avoiding one, people drop out of the workforce or never enter it at all. But right here, right now, we have a golden opportunity to build Georgia’s workforce and boost its economy by investing in Georgians with disabilities, their families, and the people that support them. I support this a million percent, and if you’re reading this, I suspect you are too. Be sure you’re connected with our GCDD advocacy network to help us make this vision a reality!
Executive Director, GCDD