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The 'Other' for Too Long

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California has been at the forefront of our country's drive to embrace its diversity. When people talk about promoting diversity, they usually are referring to people of varying race, religions, or sexuality living peacefully side by side in society. A truly diverse society embraces everyone for both their differences and their similarities, with the understanding that people are people. The reward for this inclusion is great: The more cohesion a community has, the stronger and more productive the community.

But, there is one population that has often been left out of this tapestry of diversity that we have all worked so hard to weave. Even in these progressive times, there is a group of people, labeled "developmentally disabled," that are often still treated as second-class citizens because they are "different." Unfortunately most people with developmental disabilities are tolerated, but not embraced as assets to our community. At best, they are treated as special guests or welcomed visitors. At worst they are ignored or actively discriminated against.

People with developmental disabilities face many challenges, but perhaps the most unnecessary challenge they face is prejudice in employment. Americans with disabilities have an employment rate far lower than that of Americans without disabilities, and they are underrepresented in the workforce. Individuals with disabilities currently represent just over 5 percent of the nearly 2.5 million people in the federal workforce, and individuals with "targeted disabilities" (such as cognitive impairments) represent less than 1 percent of that workforce*.

If they do become employed, jobs that developmentally disabled people work in are often well below the standards acceptable to the average population and involve discriminatory employment practices.

Developmentally disabled people are often subcontracted as a group (called an "enclave"), where they do their work on the outskirts of the workplace or in the backroom, picking up garbage or doing some sort of menial task. They do not have the same rights and benefits as employees who are directly hired by the company. Even more frequently, people with developmental disabilities work in "workshops" where, except for paid staff, they have no contact with non-disabled people. A workshop pays the workers piece rates or training wages, based on their productivity, legally compensating them well below the minimum wage.

Citizens with developmental disabilities have been treated like the "other" for far too long, and they deserve equal rights, with access to experiences and opportunities, including employment. When people with developmental disabilities are part of the workforce, they are no longer treated as visitors or guests, but as valued members of society -- as people who truly belong.

It is so difficult in this economy for anyone to get a job. You respond to ads on Craigslist, adapting your resume each time to make yourself more attractive to companies, just to find that your resume has disappeared into an abyss; you never to receive a response at all from any employer. Imagine how hard it is to get a job when you have autism or Down Syndrome. It takes an incredible amount of tenacity to obtain and maintain employment for people with developmental disabilities. However, with the right work ethic, innovative thinking and optimism, meaningful employment can be a reality for almost anyone.

When there are people who subscribe to the philosophy that being part of the workforce is a right and not a privilege, collaborative relationships can be developed to facilitate employment for people with developmental disabilities. Nonprofit employment agencies for the disabled can work with business owners to create job descriptions that fit both the needs of the employer as well as the skills and strengths of the employee with the disability. With creative use of funding that already exists for this population, "job coaches" can be provided to act as moral and physical supports to workers with special needs. Once successful employment collaboration is established, an employee with a disability can become a treasured asset to any company.

Sallie, for instance, is someone who is intellectually disabled and also suffers from severe anxiety. Sallie was bounced from relative to foster family to friend for most of her life. When Sallie was 32 years old she had never had a real job. She was living in a group home, was always nervous and had very low self-esteem. Sallie is 38 now, and she has been working for six years at Woodlands Market in Kentfield, Calif., in the health and beauty section of this upscale store. Sallie has a second part-time job as a crossing guard at a local school. When she is not working, Sallie takes dance and art classes at the College of Marin and enjoys eating in restaurants with her friends. She has her own cell phone, and she has been taught to take the bus on her own. Recently she moved into an apartment with some friends and is enjoying having her own room and the freedom to come and go as she pleases. Sallie still cannot believe this is her life and she posts grateful messages on Facebook every day such as:

"Sunday is my work Christmas party. There will be hors d'oeuvres and dancing and a live band. Lord willing I win a gift card but if I don't, I will still have a great time. Can't wait to mingle with my wonderful co-workers. I have the best job and I enjoy my co-workers."

And Sallie's employers and co-workers absolutely rave about her too. "Seeing Sallie is always the best part of my day," is a common refrain.

When people with disabilities are contributing, employed members of society, life is richer and more vibrant for everyone.

PDS is solving the nation's job crisis by ensuring that people with developmental disabilities are valuable assets to the workforce. Please show that you value the gifts that people with developmental disabilities bring to world of work by donating to our organization.

* The White House Office of the Press Secretary: July 26, 2010