Friday, May 27, 2016
Billy Long: Employment for the disabled must be protected
When Morgan was born with Down syndrome, her pediatrician told her folks who are friends of mine that they should consider institutionalizing her. Before she left the hospital, they were told she would probably never function on her own and would most likely not live past her early teens. Today, she is a delightful 40 year old woman that enjoys nothing more than working hard at Springfield's SWI Industrial Solutions. It's for all the Morgans of the world that I hope to speak for and about in this column.
Whether it's a family member, friend, or neighbor, most folks know someone who is afflicted with a disability or will become disabled due to certain medical impediments. Families looking after a disabled loved one often struggle with finding employment for these individuals, but persist because they realize that real-life work experience can provide them with a sense of pride and belonging that will improve their quality of life.
Recently, work programs that fulfill this need have come under threat from U.S. Departments of Education and Labor regulation proposals that would bar high schools from referring people between ages 16 and 24 for job placement, and make entities providing work for the developmentally disabled compensate them at or above the federal minimum wage.
While these demands could be well intentioned, they unintentionally threaten the ability for business owners to provide the most severely disabled of workers with a position altogether. At the least, these companies could be forced to cut these workers' hours in order to keep them on their teams at all.
When presented with the reality of meeting their operation’s bottom-line, these employers simply cannot afford to maintain the number of positions they've set aside for the betterment of the disabled in their communities. Furthermore, the inability of employers to work in tandem with the high schools who know each student best would compound difficulties further.
For instance, like many companies across America and the Ozarks, Springfield's SWI Industrial Solutions is worried that they won't be able to maintain their positions for our community's disabled to grow in. There are many success stories of mentally and physically disabled workers bettering their life skills while working at their plant.
They told me the story of a young woman named Mary who had never held a competitive job, but began helping SWI employees with small tasks in production and janitorial services. As she improved in the workplace, her SWI Job Developer was able to help her find employment at her dream job of working with animals, and she now lives in her own apartment and has worked at a veterinarian clinic for over four years.
There are countless stories like Morgan's and Mary's all across Southwest Missouri and America, and these new rules will be detrimental to their employment and ability to realize their dreams. This month, I sent a letter to Secretaries John King and Thomas Perez at the U.S. Departments of Education and Labor demanding that these rules be reworked for these invaluable opportunities for the disabled in our workforce. We have a responsibility to their families, our communities, and these workers to help disabled Americans reach their highest potential, and I will continue fighting on their behalf in Washington.