PA officials meet to discuss programs for people with disabilities

HARRISBURG -- Nearly 400 people are gathered here to discuss topics such as employment, education, transportation, healthcare and housing for people with disabilities.

State officials are updating participants on legislative changes and trends. Businesses, social workers and service providers, as well as people with disabilities and their families, are sharing experiences and looking for answers at the Pennsylvania Disability Employment and Empowerment Summit.

It is the third annual meeting organized by the Governor’s Cabinet for People with Disabilities.

The summit began with officials from six Pennsylvania agencies talking about their stakes in disability issues, including developing more accessible public transit, programs for older Pennsylvanians who have become disabled and best practices in serving the state’s 270,000 students with disabilities.

For the first time in six years, Acting Secretary of Education Carolyn Dumaresq reported that funding for special education will increase; jumping by $20 million over what has been a stagnant $1.026 billion.

Julia Hearthway, secretary of the department of labor and industry, said the silo mindset of government agencies needs to change so that government departments can collaborate to help families and businesses get the proper services.

For example, the labor department’s team will coordinate with others to educate employers about the Americans with Disabilities Act, transportation and education or medical needs to avoid confusion or frustration for the person making the inquiry. “We want to be a single point of contact,” she said.

The public welfare department has worked to boost employment opportunities for people with disabilities, an initiative that would traditionally fall under the labor department.

Beverly Mackereth, secretary of the Department of Public Welfare, said the agency reached out to more than 160 businesses in the last year to raise awareness and answer questions about hiring people with disabilities.

Sometimes sharing just one nugget of information, like that most workplace accommodations cost less than $500, can make a difference, she said.

“Pennsylvania is working hard to lead the way in creating more opportunities for people with disabilities to find employment,” she said.

In response to a question about next year’s budget, Mackereth said that the funding doesn’t look any better than last year; however, the focus will remain on reducing waitlists.

The priority, she said, is to wipe out the Act 150 waitlist for people with physical disabilities, most of whom are waiting for a personal attendant to help with daily activities like getting dressed and getting to work.

“I hear very loudly in the disability community that they want to work and they want to be independent,” she said, adding that an attendant or other assistive services could make that a reality for hundreds of people on that list.

A new model

The Arc of Luzerne County, a nonprofit organization, also presented a strategy to bring education and employment to people with intellectual or developmental disabilities.

The Arc has partnered with the Luzerne County Community College to offer a program called The Transition to Community Employment, or TRACE. It’s a five-semester program that is designed for young adults with disabilities who want to work and can perform most personal activities alone.

It will soon be shortened to three semesters to streamline the path to employment.

“These are students who never thought they could attend college,” said Karla Porter of the Luzerne Arc. “When they receive their college ID cards, their self-esteem skyrockets and their lives change.”

The students learn about using computers, safe social networking and searching for jobs and filling out job applications online. They start to understand their personalities, managing  diverse working relationships and resolving conflicts, Porter said.

For two semesters, the students complete an apprenticeship at local companies.

Porter reported that 70 percent of May 2014 graduates are now employed for at least 20 hours a week at minimum wage.

“It is a young program that has rapidly experienced a great deal of success,” Porter said.

Mike, a TRACE graduate whose last name was not shared to protect his privacy, was hired for two jobs. He washes dishes at one company and bags products at another.

He said the program helped him gain job skills and that he also discovered he wanted to help others by speaking about bullying in school and talking to groups about TRACE.

“It helped me become an advocate for things I believe in,” he said.

Reach Halle Stockton at 412-315-0263 or hstockton@publicsource.org.