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Bill seeks to ease workforce barriers for Arkansans with disabilities

The Arkansas State Capitol building is seen in this file photo from February 2023.
Daniel Breen
The Arkansas State Capitol building is seen in this file photo from February 2023.

A new bill in the Arkansas Legislature seeks to make it easier for Arkansans with intellectual and developmental disabilities to enter the workforce.

Senate Bill 443, sponsored by Sen. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, would create a new state “Office of Employment First” and an advisory committee composed of disability rights advocates and officials from state government and the private sector.

Jonathan Taylor, executive director of the Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities, said another goal is to partner with businesses across the state to hire more Arkansans living with disabilities.

“If you as a person are receiving some sort of public assistance, the first and preferred option should be entry into the workforce,” Taylor said. “So if you’re a person with disabilities and you’re receiving services… the question should be from the service provider, ‘What do you want to do for a living?’ But too often the question is ‘Do you want to work?’”

The news comes on the heels of March being declared Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month in Arkansas. Members of the Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities made the designation earlier this month, to raise awareness and encourage Arkansans to learn more about those living with disabilities.

Taylor says his goal is to break down the stigma that often surrounds Arkansans living with intellectual and developmental disabilities when they try to enter the workforce.

“Oftentimes when you tell somebody ‘Our company is going to start hiring people with disabilities,’ you imagine the most profoundly disabled person you’ve ever met or heard of and then that becomes the template for all other people with disabilities that you’re measuring them up against,” Taylor said. “People with disabilities are just like everybody else, there’s a continuum of talents and skills and abilities that people have.”

According to Taylor, the rate of disabled Arkansans in the workforce is just over 30% compared to the national average of about 37%. Aside from the financial incentive, he says having more disabled Arkansans moving into the workforce could also have a positive effect on mental health.

“Opening that glass door lets people with disabilities come inside, start to make some money for themselves, start to gain some level of financial independence. But it also gives them access to a social aspect of American life that you don’t get unless you have a job,” he said.

Taylor says his group is also studying ways to boost retention for companies providing direct services to adults with disabilities, an industry where the turnover rate hovers around 43% nationally.

“There are certain direct service provider organizations that do a good job at retention, so we’re really just interested, what are they doing? Is it recognition programs, career pathways and development, are they using technology different, do they have trauma-informed care and management for their teams?”

Taylor says the results of that study will be released this summer. Senate Bill 443 will have its first hearing in a legislative committee early next week.

Daniel Breen is News Director of Little Rock Public Radio.