By Gregory Miller
President/CEO Penn-Mar Human Services
Perhaps you’ve heard about Amy Wright, the mother of two children with Down Syndrome who was recently named CNN’s 2017 Hero of the Year.
Wright and her husband opened a coffee shop where their children, and other individuals with disabilities, could have paid employment and interact on a daily basis with people in the community.
During her emotional acceptance speech, Wright said, “My employees are not broken; 200 million people across the world living with an intellectual or developmental disability are not broken. What is broken is the lens through which we view people with disabilities.”
I applaud the Wright’s for their initiative. Yes, it is a different employment model than ours, but it is one that creates wonderful opportunities for younger adults with disabilities to learn how to work in the hospitality business.
And maybe more importantly, their coffee shop provides a community setting where individuals with disabilities can create relationships, tell stories, make friends and do all the small but wonderful things that add a social component to the work day.
Wright sent a loving shout-out to her children from the award stage, saying “I would not change you for the world, but I will change the world for you.”
While this success story is to be celebrated, it reminds me of how far we still have to go. My hope is that because of folks like the Wright’s, new doors will be opened to full community inclusion for people with disabilities.
Back on the home front, we at Penn-Mar moved past the sheltered workshop environment before it was popular to do so (and before it was being mandated by the government), embracing community employment and community inclusion for the folks we support.
Many years ago you could walk into Walmart and have a person with a disability greeting you. It may have appeared to be the type of job that was perfect for a person with a disability.
That thinking is evolving.
Today we believe the perfect job for a person with a disability is the job they want, one that brings value to their lives because it fulfills them and increases their level of confidence and self-sufficiency.
Additionally, the perfect job for a person with disabilities adds value to the workplace, benefitting the business financially and creating a healthy inclusive culture.
Thanks to a $250,000 challenge grant from The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, Penn-Mar is currently exploring how to best expand its Community Employment (CE) program to help individuals with IDD find and keep jobs in Maryland and Pennsylvania.
It’s possible we may conclude that we have an array of supports that we can provide to individuals with disabilities who need a partner to help them launch an entrepreneurial venture similar to the Wright’s coffee shop. We know there are a lot of opportunities out there and we’re completely open to exploring potential employment scenarios that support our mission.
Yet realistically, we also know that not every individual with a disability will secure a paid or full-time job. But we are committed to having all of the individuals we support experience enriching activities that add value to their daily lives.
We, too, are committed to “changing the world for them” to help them explore what is possible for them to be transformed by the world around them.
In our office lobby there is a quote that reads, “Don’t tell me the sky is the limit when there are footprints on the moon.” Hopefully in the future, the footprints of the people we support will be found everywhere.