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Maine Lawmaker Proposes Bill to Help Disabled Land Jobs
05/02/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

A new "Employment First" bill crafted to help disabled Mainers land jobs got an enthusiastic reception today at a legislative hearing, and attracted dozens of supporters. Sponsored by Maine Senate President Justin Alfond, the bill directs state agencies to coordinate their efforts in making employment the first priority when disabled Mainers turn to the state for help. As A.J. Higgins reports, supporters say self-sufficiency for disabled Mainers produces rewards that go beyond a paycheck.

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At the Looking Ahead Clubhouse in Lewiston, Terry Kee works to help disabled Mainers find a sense of normalcy that many abled-bodied residents take for granted. But instead of physical or mental obstacles, disabled workers often find potential employers' perceptions to be the biggest barrier to landing a job.

They say employers sometimes presume that hiring a disabled person means working with someone who has become accustomed to expecting special consideration. But Kee says disabled workers will quickly correct that perception - given the chance.

"They will tell you that they don't want to be on disability for the rest of their lives, they don't want to be looked at as crazy, lazy couch potatoes," Kee said.

Ronald Hill is one of Kee's clients. Hill lived a normal life until he had a massive heart attack, and developed diabetes and glaucoma. He says potential employers would ask him questions like what if he has another heart attack, or drops into a coma?

Hill says his health outlook is no riskier than anyone else's and that it's time for employers to drop their preconceptions. "We want to be given a chance like every other human being should be given a chance," Hill said. "Just because we have a disability - don't shut us out. We're just as capable as any one of you are to be employed."

Sen. Justin Alfond, photo by A.J. HigginsIn an effort to increase job opportunities for disabled Mainers, Senate President Justin Alfond (left) presented a bill to the Legislature's Labor, Commerce, Research, Economic Development Committee that would make employment the top priority whenever disabled Mainers turn to the Departments of Education, Health and Human Services and Labor for assistance.

Alfond says his bill encourages community-based employment for disabled workers and establishes a coalition that would provide guidance to state agencies on ways to help more disabled people find jobs.

"Any employer in the state of Maine working with an applicant with a disability would have to offer them some sort of reasonable accommodation to find work in their actual employment and so that's what this bill does," Alfond said. "I'm very excited about the bill's kind of progress and we'll see how the committee works on it."

David Bartidge, the plant manager at Proctor & Gamble's Tambrands facility in Lewiston, does more than simply advocate for the needs of disabled workers. He says of the 60 part-time workers employed by his firm, 45 percent have some form of disability. Bartidge says beyond a pay check, the jobs his company provides gives disabled Mainers a sense of self-worth.

"It has given them an identity, it provides them with an opportunity to be integrated into everyday life," Bartidge said. "It impacts the employee and the employer's family. I've heard parents thank us for giving their child an opportunity to work. They expressed concern that they felt they had outlived their children to provide them support. They now have hope that their sons and daughters can make it on their own."

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the workforce participation rate for people with disabilities is about one-third that of people without disabilities. In Maine, only 26 percent of people with disabilities are employed. Alfond says his Employment First bill will help these Mainers climb out of poverty and become more self-sufficient.

Photo by A.J. Higgins.


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