VT Digger News Series
This series is a collaboration produced by members of the Vermont Care Partners
October is National Disability Awareness Month: a Wonderful Time to Celebrate Workers with Developmental Disabilities
Addison County is a wonderful and supportive community known for celebrating people of all abilities. I wish to take this opportunity to extend my gratitude and appreciation to our participating local shops, restaurants, and businesses. These employers are incredible guardians of the supported employment initiative at the Counseling Service of Addison County (CSAC) and should be celebrated. Every single one of us benefits from the existence of supported employment which provides a wide range of employment supports to people with disabilities. Most importantly, this type of inclusive, person centered assistance is a cornerstone of inclusive communities for all.
Supported employment has been a national topic for debate for decades. The US Commission on Civil Rights recently released a report that people with disabilities should not be paid less than the minimum wage, which in Vermont is $10.78/hour (https://www.usccr.gov/pubs/briefing-reports/2020-09-17-Subminimum-Wages.php).
This fact may surprise some of you; however, it is true that in many parts of our country, people with disabilities are not paid minimum wage and work in segregated work settings, known as sheltered workshops, with little opportunity to learn and grow. This is not the case in Vermont. We should all be proud of this feather in our cap!
Vermont leads the nation as one of the first states to end subminimum wages and sheltered workshops for people with disabilities. We have a strong state culture and record of integrating people into the community with meaningful work and ensuring fair wages. Much of this work is done by the state’s network of designated and specialized service agencies, in partnership with the Department of Disabilities, Aging, and Independent Living (DAIL) and hundreds of businesses committed to employing a diverse group of Vermonters.
Our state understood early on that segregation in work settings unnecessarily isolated people from their community. It robbed people of the ability to grow through meaningful work. Vermont recognized that work provides dignity, self-respect, and self-esteem. Our data shows that the state has some of the highest rates of employment by people with disabilities, and average wages are well above even the state minimum wage.
Locally at the Counseling Service of Addison County, we have been successfully helping people access competitive, diverse, integrated, and meaningful work. We recently learned that 61% of our clients in the supported employment program are employed (up 3% from last year), and wages were 120% of the statewide target. People served by supported employment services report high job satisfaction.
The backbone of CSAC is the staff that assists with job placements and provides on-site support, training, and coaching. I had the chance to sit down with two CSAC staff members to understand their experiences and perspectives from their almost sixty years of combined tenure with the agency. What stands out about both Danny Grace and Charlene (Char) Kelton is their passion. Both are persistent in the search for the right placement and ensuring good support. This includes coaching and solid communication and stepping back to allow employees to take chances, make mistakes, learn, and grow. Char, employed with CSAC since 1991, brings deep skill, compassion, and understanding to her work. She says, “We are all people, and some need more help than others.” Char has worked with people at job sites across Addison County, including Shaw’s and Cycle Wise Bike Shop. She recalls coming to work in the field as Brandon Training School was closing and being shocked at how many able, talented people were segregated and isolated from the general population. She’s been working hard to ensure meaningful employment and experience for people ever since. Char’s expertise and close connections in the county translate to more robust employment opportunities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
When speaking to his approach to the job, Danny Grace stated, “My goal is to get my client to independence.” He encourages people to find their voice and concentrates on good employer/employee matches. “I help people narrow their focus and find their strengths and a job where the person can find connection, meaning, and purpose.” He’s worked with employers and volunteer opportunities such as Middlebury College and Age Well’s Meals on Wheels program.
Both Char and Danny listen and adapt to meet the needs of each client. They agree that quality of life has improved since the days of sheltered workshops and subminimum wages. Vermont’s commitment to meaningful work for all has meant competitive wages, greater independence, and job satisfaction.
I hope you will find an opportunity this month to take a moment and consider the many benefits of living in an inclusive community. Let’s find a chance to celebrate everyone’s contributions, regardless of what abilities they have.
If you would like to learn more about CSAC, developmental service program employment or how you, as an employer, could work with us please reach out at 388-4021. --Rachel Lee Cummings, CSAC Executive Director