By Jan Aho
for the Register Guard
Executive Director of Pearl Buck Center
March is National Disability Awareness Month. It is the perfect time to celebrate the progress that communities across the nation have made with regard to being aware of the gifts that people with various abilities bring to our communities.
In the 1990s, Oregon began transitioning people from state-funded institutions into their communities. In the 2000s, our state’s last publicly funded institution for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities closed.
Instead of being isolated, these institutions’ former residents increasingly became woven into the fabric of our communities. Their lives became richer and filled with many more opportunities than an institution could offer, including opportunities for employment.
In 2008, Oregon became one of the first states to formally adopt an “Employment First” policy. In 2013, Gov. John Kitzhaber issued Executive Order 13-04, mandating the Integrated Employment Plan, and he sent a letter to state Department of Human Services staff affirming Oregon’s commitment to integrated employment services for people who meet the state definition of intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Different views exist about how to ensure a full range of employment choices for people with a wide range of abilities and skills. For instance, facility-based employment services can be a source of meaningful, paid work. They can provide training in technical and social skills needed for community employment. And they can offer a productive alternative to sitting at home until an individual secures a community job placement.
In the Pearl Buck Center production department, training, wages and work at skill levels from simple to complex are provided through jobs contracted to us by more than 70 businesses, including Attune Foods, Dancing Bear’s Rocks and Minerals, East West Tea Company, Electrical Geodesics and Red Ape Cinnamon.
These companies receive high-quality service and cost benefits through work performed by adults working at Pearl Buck Center.
Employment First is gradually defunding this type of “sheltered” employment. The state has eliminated it as an option for young adults experiencing intellectual and developmental disabilities when they graduate high school, and it will prohibit facility-based employment altogether beginning in 2019.
However, the undisputed common ground is that people of all abilities should have access to employment, with the understanding that everyone has something to contribute.
Working and sharing our skills is one way we can give to our community. Work increases our independence, self-esteem and sense of belonging.
In addition, we all benefit from living in a diverse, inclusive community that gives everyone the chance to make his or her own unique contribution.
Pearl Buck Center began its community employment services in the 1980s because, as individuals who experience any kind of disability know, it is harder for them to get a job than it is for others. Fortunately, more employers are discovering the advantages of hiring these motivated job-seekers directly.
Kallin Benson of Fuller Cabinets says, “Initially, our motivation for hiring from Pearl Buck Center was to simply free up our skilled labor force from their basic labor tasks. What we have received from Pearl Buck Center’s Community Employment Department are positive, hardworking, fun-loving employees that genuinely appreciate the opportunity to work hard and earn a living.
“These guys (with disabilities) actually bring the morale of the company up every time they’re here in the building. It’s important for us to hire people with disabilities because they are capable members of our community who deserve the same opportunities most of us take for granted.”
Business owners often find that productivity and efficiency increase after they hire someone with disabilities. Holly Powell, Pearl Buck Center’s director of community employment services, says, “When your company hires someone with disabilities, you will gain a dedicated, productive and invaluable employee. Your company will have an employee who is excited to come to work every day and will strive to do their best at every given task.”
When one of our community employment clients finally got a job he had especially longed for, he said, “Pinch me, so I know I’m not dreaming.”
John Anderson, the owner of Togo’s restaurants in Eugene, asked Pearl Buck Center for help in finding people with disabilities who were interested in working in the food service business. Our job developer and job coaches identified someone whose skill set and interests matched John’s needs.
Following that success, Togo’s hired two more employees with disabilities. When I thanked John for supporting our community employment efforts, he replied, “Don’t thank me. This is good business.”
March is National Disability Awareness Month. This is a perfect time for our business community to consider jobs you may have for individuals with disabilities.
Jan Aho is executive director of Pearl Buck Center.