As someone who hopes to dedicate his life’s work to issues concerning disability activism, advocacy, and economic development, I am incredibly honored and humbled to serve as a High Road Fellow at the Learning Disabilities Association of Western New York (LDA of WNY). LDA of WNY serves over 1,200 individuals throughout 8 counties of Western New York, annually. My work is largely focused around vocational rehabilitation, conducting research and presentations regarding the legal and financial benefits organizations receive when they employ workers with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and writing grants for future LDA programming that I am helping to create. This opportunity at LDA of WNY is very important to me since much of the past work I have engaged in has been focused on providing opportunities to children and young adults, not people of working age, who have been especially affected by the economic downturn caused by the Great Recession in 2008. As of June 2014, the U.S. Department of Labor’s figures show that the national unemployment rate for people with disabilities is 12.9%, more than double the unemployment rate for people without disabilities, which currently stands at a dismal 6.1%. In Buffalo and the Western New York region the unemployment rate for both disabled and nondisabled individuals, as well as the percentage of the residents in the population that are disabled, is significantly higher than the national average. It is therefore imperative for these individuals to find substantial employment opportunities, where they can fully harness their potential and develop skills that allow them to live self-sufficiently.
Since many of the individuals that LDA of WNY works with grew up in underserved areas, in economically-disadvantaged homes with limited opportunities, in a time when the vast majority of public policy and public sentiment treated, and continues to treat, people with disabilities as second-class citizens, many of these individuals have been abandoned by their families, denied an education, and erroneously rendered ineffective. Further exacerbating these challenges is the fact that many of these individuals, ranging from ages 18 to 80, do not believe that they can succeed because many systems in society have convinced them they cannot do so. In order to dispel these notions, I have done research on and assembled a list of certificate programs that allow our individuals to have a competitive advantage in the job process. The individuals we work with, who identify interest in particular fields, are then tutored in relevant subject matter and undergo extensive preparation, in order to pass requisite exams for certificate completion. The most popular certificate programs that our individuals are currently enrolled in are in animal science, cosmetology, commercial vehicle operations, medical coding, and hospitality and tourism management.
The main project I am currently working on is creating a report and research-based presentation that I will present to human capital directors, general managers, and chief executive officers of large corporations and federal contractors, which informs them about the benefits of hiring workers with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Prior to beginning this research, I created a database that contains information and statistics on over 500 organizations in Western New York, each of which I personally contacted and cold-called, in order to invite them to our semiannual Western New York Business Mingle, LDA of WNY’s informational networking event, which aims to encourage local organizations to hire qualified individuals with disabilities and informs them about current disability policy reforms, such as the new Section 503 mandates to the 1973 Rehabilitation Act. As of April 2014, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) mandated that federal contractors exhaust all efforts possible to ensure that at least 7% of their workplace consist of workers with disabilities. Having taken courses in Disability Employment Policy and Disability Studies, as well as having performed extensive analysis on workplace attitudes and policies toward individuals with disabilities, I feel well prepared to tackle this challenging, yet exciting responsibility.