Guest column/Ability at Work theme of disabilities awareness month

March is Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month in Ohio. It is a month that is dedicated to the many achievements of individuals with developmental disabilities. Individuals with developmental disabilities are beginning to live, play and work in a variety of integrated settings in our community, but much more needs to happen to fully “open the doors” of our community.

The theme of the month is Ability at Work. Each of us has different abilities, educational backgrounds and interests as we enter the work force. To be successful as employees, the key is matching our abilities, strengths and interests with the job we do. Often, it takes a number of jobs and, in some cases, careers before we find the right match. Once we do, or if we do, happiness with our job is often the result.

Being happy in one’s job often goes a long way toward being happy in one’s life. Numerous studies have shown that people who are happy at work have a much greater chance of being happy with life. Many, who are unhappy or dissatisfied with their jobs, would be well served to move on to something different.

The same holds true for individuals with developmental disabilities. Being happy at work often leads to happiness in life.

Many of the individuals served by the Jefferson County Board of DD are employed by Jeffco Sheltered Workshop, a nonprofit organization originally established to provide work opportunities for individuals with developmental disabilities. Some of them have worked there for a lifetime; some as long as 40 years.

Jeffco currently provides a variety of work opportunities, including manufacturing picnic tables and lawn furniture, small parts assembly, packaging, grounds maintenance and the cleaning of various buildings in the community. Over the years other work has been available as well.

It is my belief that many of these individuals have been well served over the years and have been happy with their jobs at Jeffco Workshop. Many remain happy today.

The problem is that few of them really know anything else. In most cases they have never worked in the community, so it is difficult to know if they are truly happy or just content with their sheltered job. Others may be content because they can simply socialize with their peers on a daily basis. Being with friends, regardless of the job, is better than staying at home with little or nothing to do.

Being content does not always mean being happy. How many times do we hear people say “well it’s a job and I need to make a living,” not exactly an endorsement for being happy. I wonder if the same applies to at least some of the folks that we serve.

Being happy with your job is very important.

We now know that many of the DD individuals we serve have the ability to work in the community. Some are very capable and just need some basic training. Others are a bigger challenge, but, with the proper training and coaching, have an opportunity to succeed. Not all can succeed, but many will.

The proof is in the pudding. The Jefferson County Board of DD currently has 24 individuals placed into community jobs. Some of them are the happiest individuals we serve. The same holds true in many communities across the country.

Today, national experts are railing against sheltered workshops, segregated day programs and large group homes. So too is the Department of Labor. For the most part, they want sheltered workshops, segregated day programs and large group homes closed or, at least, greatly reduced in size. In a number of states the Department of Labor is dictating changes in developmental disabilities services. They are demanding that states close or, at least, greatly reduce the number and size of sheltered workshops, segregated day programs and large group homes. We expect the same to occur in Ohio.

The bottom line is they want adults with developmental disabilities to work, play and live in integrated settings. By integrated settings, they mean jobs in the community, recreational activities in the community and living in regular neighborhoods with everyone else.

The Jefferson County Board of DD is making every effort to be proactive in each of these areas, but especially in the area of employment. For years we have been placing individuals with developmental disabilities into community jobs. Numerous local employers have opened their doors to us and are giving individuals with developmental disabilities the opportunity to work.

We plan on continuing those efforts through an initiative known as Employment First, that was initiated two years ago by the state of Ohio. We have added staff in the community employment services area, we are encouraging individuals, who attend Jeffco, to give community employment a try and all new referrals are being assessed for community employment before being admitted to Jeffco Workshop.

We are actively looking for jobs for individuals with developmental disabilities. We need the help of community employers to make this happen. Give our program a call when you have staffing needs for entry level employees. Our Community Employment Services Division will work hard to find you a dependable employee. In addition, we will provide on- the-job training for the person selected for the job. We can even set up a trial work period (at no cost to you) to see if the person can successfully learn the job. If problems arise after you employ the individual, we will come back and provide additional training. We will stay involved with you and the employee into the future.

Finally, we want to thank all the employers, who have already employed individuals through our Community Employment Services Division. Hopefully, you have a good employee and an employee who is happy in his or her job.

(Mehalik is the superintendent of the Jefferson County Board of Development Disabilities.)