They love to work there

To read on The Tribune-Democrat website:

Workshops for handicapped get reprieve from state

work

T.J. Martin uses a hand-operated machine to shape steel into hooks inside the Cambria County Association For the Blind and Handicapped Association’s Johnstown facility Wednesday, March 15, 2017

T.J. Martin wore a wide grin while he used a hand-operated machine to shape steel into hooks inside the Cambria County Association For the Blind and Handicapped Association’s Johnstown facility Wednesday.

He had a reason to smile.

He and nearly 160 co-workers – many of them diagnosed with intellectual disabilities that create roadblocks to finding full-time work elsewhere – received news this week that they should be able to stay busy at their jobs for years to come.

“I like it here,” said Martin, 34. “We took two buses to Harrisburg to let them know (what we thought) … and to keep my job, and keep Bobby’s job and keep Damon’s job. All my friends’ jobs.”

Martin was among dozens of employees, parents and other supporters from the association’s Johnstown and Ebensburg locations who attended a rally at the state Capitol to protest proposed regulation changes that would have taken workers like them from “sheltered workshop” settings like theirs over the next two years and transitioned them into “community activities” – such as volunteer work with the public.

The proposal was initially pitched by the Department of Human Services in December and resulted in an intensive letter-writing and outreach campaign against the idea, according to Cambria County Association for the Blind and Handicapped CEO Richard Bosserman.

But hours after they took their message to Harrisburg on Monday, state officials reversed course. Human Services officials announced they would modify requirements that would have soon forced providers to find competitive employment, volunteer jobs or other community initiatives for 75 percent of a recipient’s program week, state officials said.

Kathaleen Gillis, a Department of Human Services spokeswoman, said the message to the department was received loud and clear.

She said the contested plan was distributed late last year for public comment – and “we heard from people that they wanted changes made.”

“That’s why we put the document out for public comment,” Gillis said.

‘Best of their ability’

Plan supporters crafted the plan, in part, as a way to further integrate tens of thousands of adults with disabilities into the community.

But Bosserman said hundreds of “sheltered workshop” employees and their families from around the state assured officials that they embraced the working environment they were in – one that allowed them to work alongside co-workers who face similar challenges in everyday life, and just as importantly, people who all work at different speeds.

The average employee in the association’s workshops is 42 years old. But most function at the level of a typical 11-year-old child, according to John Stahl, rehabilitation director for the Cambria County Association For The Blind and Handicapped.

“They’re doing what they can to the best of their ability. But for many of them, that’s not enough to keep up in a competitive environment,” Stahl said.

“Somewhere else, there’s fewer safeguards and less support for them when they are working. And they don’t have driver’s licenses.”

Martin started working for the association 12 years ago. It was a life-changing move, his mother, Rita, said.

“It has been fabulous for him.

“I don’t know where he’d be without his job because he truly takes pride in what he does,” she said. “He gets up every morning and he’s waiting for his ride to work.”

Martin has dealt with a diagnosed intellectual disability his entire life, Rita Martin said.

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