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Employment First gaining statewide momentum
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David Brack makes the pan shine at Taco Bell. Brack counts on Sunflower Diversified Services, a local non-profit agency, part of whose mission is to help people find jobs. Sunflower serves people with developmental disabilities. - photo by COURTESY PHOTO

The momentum has been building for several months and Jim Johnson is hoping the legwork will come to fruition during the next Kansas legislative session.

Johnson is executive director of Sunflower Diversified Services, which serves people with developmental disabilities in central Kansas; he is also a member of the statewide Employment First Work Group. Employment First has long been a mission at Sunflower but it is now gathering national and statewide attention.

The concept is: persons with developmental disabilities should look first at employment opportunities, and community providers should look first at employment for everyone who seeks services.

While legislation wasn’t passed this year, the Kansas Employment First Summit convened last April in Topeka. And most recently, Gov. Mark Parkinson signed executive orders on the topic. Executive Order 10-10 calls upon state agencies to increase the number of Kansans with disabilities who are competitively employed.

Order 10-09 establishes the Governor’s Excellence Awards to recognize individuals and agencies that demonstrate exceptional commitment to empowering Kansans with disabilities.

Johnson anticipates lawmakers will support legislation that sets a course for more funding to promote employment and require all state agencies to make jobs their first priority.

"For example," Johnson said, "legislators could set a policy that all providers seek first to get people on an employment track before choosing an activities-only program."

The state could provide financial incentives for getting people jobs, which many providers would welcome. Those who might be opposed, Johnson said, unfortunately have failed to create employment services that will help them realize their job potential.

"Changes in state funding and the dramatic increase in licensed community providers statewide have resulted in an unfortunate shift away from employment as a priority," Johnson said. "With few exceptions, most persons with developmental disabilities can and want to work.

"Each of us is expected to contribute to society," he elaborated. "When we set persons with disabilities aside and establish a different set of standards, we in effect tell them we do not value their potential to contribute. People have the right to work but they also have the responsibility to work."

The goal of Employment First is to help people seek the highest level of employment possible, which gives them the highest earning potential. This, in turn, allows them to live the most independent lives possible, Johnson explained.

"It is important to seek opportunities for paying jobs to supplement state benefits," Johnson noted. "This reduces reliance on tax dollars, which is a priority for us all."

If a person is unable to work in the community right now, supported employment can provide a job coach that may make a community job more feasible, Johnson said. A job crew, with a coach, allows the person to share job duties with co-workers.

A sheltered industry, such as Sunflower’s manufacturing plant and First Step Recycling Center, offer the next option.

"These operations provide good jobs and earning potential for those whose disabilities make it impossible for them to meet competitive job requirements in other settings," Johnson explained. "Sunflower has always strived to find options that allow people to be as productive as they can be. And we will continue to do so."

A news release from Gov. Parkinson’s office notes that he signed the executive orders to help ensure Kansans with disabilities thrive in the workplace and the community.

"We have made great strides as a state to uphold our commitment to Kansans with disabilities," the release said. "I am honored to recognize those that have contributed to this commitment, while also setting an example for how we can continue to maximize employment opportunities for Kansans with disabilities."