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Advancing the quality of life for people with disabilities

Photo by Bruce Silcox
Author Ed Spencer Jr. and his son Teddy

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, the perfect opportunity to highlight the successes of individuals with disabilities in our community and to showcase the role nonprofit organizations in Minnesota play in improving the lives of people with disabilities.

Opportunity Partners is one of those organizations. For more than 60 years, employment for people with disabilities has been the cornerstone of Opportunity Partners’ mission. What started in a bungalow in 1953 has grown into one of the largest human service organizations in the state, where more than 2,000 individuals receive support services every year.  

In just the last three years, Opportunity Partners has supported more than 400 people with disabilities as they have gained independent, competitive jobs in private businesses, nonprofit organizations and public agencies. These individuals have shown that they are more than their disability. They are working, paying taxes and contributing to their communities. 

Alysa and Angie: superstars

Let me tell you about Alysa, 26. With Opportunity Partners’ support, Alysa gained experience at a local manufacturer. She developed skills and confidence, then after several years was ready for something new. She sought a job as a bagger at a new Hy-Vee and was hired. She says her co-workers are the best part. “Every one of them is as friendly and cheerful as I am,” she says with smile.

Then there’s Angie, 39, who dreamed all her life of working in an office like her mom. She didn’t know if her disability would prevent her from achieving this goal. With Opportunity Partners’ help, Angie landed a job as a document preparer at Williams & Associates, Inc. She carefully removes staples from documents, keeping them in meticulous order. The repetitive work is a great fit for her. Her manager describes her as “refreshing, very pleasant and a joy to be around.”

Alysa and Angie are superstars. Their employers are superstars too. I applaud each and every Minnesota company that makes an effort to hire employees with disabilities, resulting in a more inclusive community overall.

Unfortunately, the road to employment success for individuals with disabilities is not always straight. Sometimes people don’t succeed on their first try. Fortunately, disability service organizations are there to step back in if needed and, in some cases, start the process over. 

Higher levels of support

There are many people served by Opportunity Partners who need a higher level of support to succeed at work. Some work at Opportunity Partners, where they have jobs and support services on site. My son Teddy, 27, is one such individual. Teddy has Down syndrome. He works two days a week on a community cleaning team and three days a week at Opportunity Partners, where he performs light packaging while enrolled in a work-readiness training program. Teddy is happy and is progressing toward his goals. His success looks different from Alysa’s and Angie’s success – and that’s OK.

Across the nation, organizations like Opportunity Partners are under scrutiny because they provide people with disabilities – like my son Teddy – the choice of center-based employment where they can, legally, earn wages that are based on their productivity. These are often referred to as subminimum wages. The authorization to pay these special minimum wages is highly regulated, and the practice provides a work and social opportunity for individuals who may not be able to work independently or at the level of productivity typically required by businesses. It also serves as a pathway for people to gain skills that in many cases lead to independent employment and higher wages. We hope Teddy is on that path.

New U.S. Department of Labor rules are placing limits on the ability of people with disabilities to access jobs paid at subminimum wage. The intent is good: to ensure that more people with disabilities choose and attain competitive, community employment. Organizations like Opportunity Partners are working closely with the State of Minnesota’s Vocational Rehabilitation Services division to ensure the roll-out of these changes goes as smoothly as possible.

In the end, if more people with disabilities gain competitive, community employment, this will be applauded. Opportunity Partners’ mission is to advance the quality of life for people with disabilities. When an individual lands a job in the community and goes to work as a regular employee, it represents a success for the organization, the individual, the employer and our entire community. 

Concern over unintended consequences

However, I fear the new rules could result in unintended consequences. Unemployment rates for people with disabilities are already woefully high. New regulations might mean even more people with disabilities are without jobs, waiting at home for an opportunity that may not come. I certainly hope this doesn’t happen. We’ve come too far.

I do know that organizations like Opportunity Partners and companies, large and small, will play a critical part in Minnesota’s efforts to remove the barriers that keep people with disabilities from fully engaging in the state’s workforce. As we strive to keep moving forward, let’s all get on board. What role can your business play in hiring workers with disabilities?

Ed Spencer Jr., is vice chair of the Opportunity Partners Board of Directors and founder and chairman of Affinity Capital Management.

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