By Andy Marso
Kansans with disabilities from across the state gathered this month in Topeka for a two-day caucus centered on employment, which many said remains hard to get and maintain.
Participants in the 13th Kansas Disability Caucus split into three regional groups in the afternoon. People in the eastern Kansas group raised concerns about transportation, navigating the social services maze and the limitations of state employment initiatives.
“One of the themes was just that employment in general isn’t working,” said Steve Gieber, executive director of the Kansas Council on Developmental Disabilities, as he summed up the eastern Kansas session.
Boosting the employment rate of Kansans with disabilities has been a goal of Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration for years and state funds have been funneled to provide incentives for employers.
But it remains a huge challenge and as recently as last October, less than 20 percent of Kansans with disabilities were in the workforce.
Participants in this year’s disability caucus said that some housing and public businesses like restaurants still aren’t accessible to people with disabilities, 25 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the landmark federal law meant to provide access to public life.
Caucus participants said the lingering problems with accessibility create barriers to employment. A shortage of networking opportunities and employers’ to provide reasonable accommodations for workers with disabilities also continued to be problems.
Others said they need more help navigating government programs like Social Security Disability Insurance and Medicaid because they’re afraid that earning more money could threaten their medical coverage.
The meeting led to calls for more self-advocacy and more teamwork between Kansans with all type of disabilities to fight for their rights under the ADA.
Susanne Hindman, from Olathe, said she needed emotional support for her legal battle with her former employer. After she was fired, she filed a discrimination complaint with the Kansas Human Rights Commission and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an experience she called “terrifying.”
“There’s really no support out there for me,” Hindman said. “I’m flying alone. We encourage each other to speak up for ourselves and advocate for ourselves and then we leave each other out to dry.” Caucus participants were encouraged to get in touch with the closest branch of the Self Advocate Coalition of Kansas or Centers for Independent Living.
At another session, the three managed care organizations (MCO) that administer Kansas Medicaid through KanCare gave presentations about their efforts to assist clients with disabilities in finding employment. Services provided include some transportation to and from work, resume help, interview coaching and assistance in identifying workplace accommodations. Angie Reinking,
United HealthCare’s outreach specialist, highlighted the company’s Empower Kansas grants, a three-year program to provide $1.5 million to support community programs that seek meaningful employment for Kansans with disabilities.
“We as an MCO want to be part of the answer to that ongoing challenge,” Reinking said. “We know people want to be employed, we know there’s some good programs and there’s some good services out there, but there’s some gaps and some frustrations.”
The Working Healthy program was the focus of another session. It allows Kansans with disabilities to purchase Medicaid as they increase their income so that they don’t have to fear losing their coverage and having to purchase more expensive private insurance. One theme that emerged was that social isolation also plays a role in employment challenges.
Johnna Godinez, a Topekan who works with the Kansas Youth Empowerment Agency, said people with disabilities tend to withdraw, especially if they’re newly disabled. That makes it hard to find a job.
“It’s a competitive world out there, Godinez said, “and we need to raise our expectations of ourselves so that we can compete.”
Andy Marso is a reporter for Heartland Health Monitor, a news collaboration focusing on health issues and their impact in Missouri and Kansas.