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Advocates Say Senate President's Leadership A Boost For People With 'Unique Abilities'

Agency For Persons With Disabilities Director Barbara Palmer with Ashley Martin

Top Florida lawmakers have introduced dozens of bills aimed at improving employment and educational opportunities for people with disabilities. And for some of the staunchest backers, the issue is personal.

Finding a job is hard. It can be more difficult with a disability involved. But Senate President Andy Gardiner, says it doesn’t have to be that way. And he believes the state should take the lead on employment.

“We’ve made an effort over the past couple of years to help individuals with, a lot of people say disabilities, but we look at it as individuals with ‘unique abilities’," he says.

For Gardiner, the issue is personal. He has a son who has Down Syndrome. And he’s fought for years to increase educational and employment opportunities for Floridians with disabilities. Gardiner wants to help people like 21-year-old Ashley Martin.  She spoke with Agency For Persons with Disabilities Director Barbara Palmer about a year ago. Ashley dreams of one day working with animals. But she’s frustrated with the entry-level jobs she’s gotten, such as working at a local grocery store.

“Inside jobs, stocking stuff at Harveys. Cleaning tables, sweeping, putting new paper towels," she says, describing the type of work she's gotten.

Susanne Homat heads the ABLE Trust.

"I think it’s going to be a really good year for our cause," she says.

The organization lobbies for people with disabilities, and Homat says she can’t remember a year when there have been so many bills.

“I think we’ve got a great start. Even if a percentage of those bills pass, it will be a great year for people with disabilities in Florida.”

Lawmakers have started moving proposals that would allow disabled Floridians to work and keep their health insurance. Another would encourage state agencies to hire more people with disabilities. Other proposals expand workforce training opportunities at public universities.

Still, there are problems. Other advocates say they need more funding for behavioral specialists who assist disabled Floridians on the job. They say once a person is employed the specialist is there to help them navigate social situations—which can sometimes be overwhelming. Transportation is also a big hurdle to employment. And the Able Trust’s Homat says she’d like to see further reductions in the red tape that people encounter when they try to enter the workforce.

“We make life more difficult for them that we would ever make for ourselves. It’s not fair. It’s not the human thing to do. But we do make it difficult," Homat says about the paperwork problems that confront disabled Floridians once they are employed.

But despite the downsides, she says all the legislation equals a big step forward. And she credits Senate President Andy Gardiner for pushing the issue.

Follow @HatterLynn

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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