NH News
9:05 am
Tue November 19, 2013

N.H. Invests In Helping People With Developmental Disabilities Get Jobs And Keep Them

Sara Frost sprays down tables at Portsmouth Regional Hospital's cafeteria.
Credit Emily Corwin / NHPR

  While government programs like mental health services were being cut over the last five years, one program has seen increased funding throughout the recession: services for people with developmental disabilities.  In particular, the state’s Bureau of Developmental Services has been investing in services that help people with developmental disabilities find work. 

Thirteen years ago, the Americans with Disabilities Act paved the way for people with disabilities to get accommodations in the workplace.  But as economist Andrew Houtenville says, the ADA hasn’t been effective for everyone.  Houtenville works at the University of New Hampshire’s Institute on Disability.  

“What I think is coming out of the numbers is people with sensory disabilities so hearing and vision related disabilities, people with physical disabilities: their employment is improving over time.” Houtenville says judging by the data he’s seen, it’s possible that “ people with developmental disabilities are not being advanced by the ADA, and that technology is bringing.”

To help bridge that gap, people with disabilities like severe autism or cerebral palsy, and their advocates in New Hampshire are trying to get more support in the workplace. And, the legislature is on board.

Since 2008, funding for employment-related programs increased by 50 percent. These are programs that help people like Sara Frost find and keep a job.

In the cafeteria at Portsmouth Hospital, Frost sprays down dirty tables, and maneuvers between hungry doctors and nurses. She’s finishing up an unpaid food service internship here. She says she finds the work a bit challenging: “it takes a lot of practice to get used to the whole cafeteria, trying to get all the tables clean.” 

Sara Frost is an intern at Portsmouth Regional Hospital's cafeteria.
Credit Emily Corwin / NHPR

  Frost is 21 years old. She works here five days a week, as part of a vocational-training program called Project Search.

Sara’s mom Robin Frost says her daughter didn’t speak until she was 10 years old. Here’s how she describes Frost’s disability:

Technically if you look at an evaluation it’ll say cerebral palsy that manifested itself as a severe speech and language disorder with mild to moderate cognitive difficulties.

Frost says she wants Sara to be as self-sufficient as possible. But for people with disabilities, work isn’t just about income. It’s about being included in mainstream society.  As Sara says, when she works, she doesn’t feel disabled.  “Whenever I see my peers with their disabilities, and I have disability in me, and when I'm working in the caf’, or anywhere, I don't see any disabilities there.

Once Frost finishes her internships at Project Search, the state’s Bureau of Developmental Services will likely get her a career trainer near her home. The trainer will help her scope out work, and may then act as an intermediary between Frost and the employer.

Denise Sleeper is the employment administrator for the Bureau. She says providing these longer-term services are part of a bigger trend toward policies that prioritize work:

So what has happened over the last few years is people are trying to align policy: what are the most important things in peoples' lives? What gives people accessibility to full citizenship.

The Bureau was awarded their biggest appropriation yet in this year’s budget. And, it has committed to using funds to support employees at risk of losing their jobs.

UNH economist Andrew Houtenville says it has been possible for legislators to fund these efforts despite the recession, because the issue tends to be bipartisan. “On the conservative side,” Houtenville explains, “you've got ‘let's get people back to work, let’s get them paying taxes, no entitlement.’  But also on the liberal side,” he says, “you've got ‘well we want people with disabilities integrated into an important part of American Society, we don’t want them shut in their homes with poverty level wages.’”

But just because the funding is coming in for job support doesn’t mean those jobs are necessarily recession-proof. Denise Sleeper at the Bureau of Developmental Services says her data doesn’t show much job loss during the recession. But some individuals on the job market may disagree.   

Robin Frost – Sara’s mother -- says she’s heard from many of Sara’s peers who say the economy  made it harder to find jobs: “Since 2008, so many businesses are trying to do more with less,” Frost says. “So they do look at it perhaps as ‘this is going to cost me more.’”

Frost says with so many unemployed people vying for even the most menial jobs, those with disabilities are at an extra disadvantage. 

Jeff Campagna is a career trainer who works with Sara Frost at Project Search in Portsmouth. “It can be tricky in this economy,” he says. He knows that Frost’s dream job would be to work in  youth athletics.  But he says it’s much easier to find job opportunities for people with disabilities at big box stores. “Big places like Home Depot or Hannafords are used to job coaches and people with disabilities,”he says.

Campagna says places like that are familiar with him coming in to help an employee learn a new On the other hand, he says, “it’s challenging for the higher quality jobs.”

In fact, over the course of a year, people with developmental disabilities are likely to earn about $7.50 less per hour than the average Granite Stater.

Andrew Houtenville says it’s in those perhaps more rewarding but harder-to-get jobs that the   recession really hits home.

The recession effect I've seen is that many times the jobs are carved out, it’s a special situation, with an in-tuned employer. Well, that employer may go away. The store may close, they may have to reduce their workforce, and those special jobs are very difficult to get back.  

What’s yet to be seen is whether – by getting more career trainers like Jeff Campagna knocking on workplace doors – the Sara Frosts of New Hampshire will have an easier time finding jobs. Both  at places like Hannafords or Home Depot,  as well as elsewhere in the state’s diverse workforce. 

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