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Sunday, Sep 21, 2014
Commentary

Region should rally to employ the disabled

Published:

How would you react if I told you there is a group of Americans, united by a characteristic they were born with, who have an 88 percent unemployment rate?

This is something that rings true for the developmentally disabled. For this group, once school services end, they are left without a job or a useful way to spend their days.

The economic costs of this are obvious:

Americans who could become productive taxpayers are underutilized.

But it is the moral cost that should concern persons of goodwill. What does it say about such a wealthy society that nine out of 10 of its developmentally disabled citizens are chronically unemployed?

National reforms focused on health care, welfare and crime have shown that local efforts serve as catalysts for national efforts.

Accordingly, why not incorporate a public-private partnership here in the Tampa Bay area for jobs for the developmentally disabled?

Numerous local organizations serving the developmentally disabled — such as PARC, Best Buddies Tampa Bay and Autism Speaks Tampa Bay — have a role to play.

Communities of faith which act on the teachings of the Torah and the Sermon on the Mount have a role to play.

And our local governments are key.

Though a partisan certainly exists, surely Republicans and Democrats can agree that a crisis in which nine in 10 developmentally disabled Americans are chronically unemployed requires public action.

Thankfully, an effort is already beginning.

Local businesses — ranging from Publix to PDQ to the Tampa office of the Holland & Knight law firm — have made wonderful employment efforts. Local resident Vicky Westra has developed a remarkable partnership with Mercedes Benz of Tampa in employing persons with autism in a cafe.

Though sheltered employment at workshops is well taken, full inclusion in our workplaces is key.

I write this as a challenge to local government officials, local organizations that advocate for the developmentally disabled and businesses to create an aggressive and all-American effort to address this crisis.

Indeed, there is nothing more all-American than this effort. Americans have always been fond of a national challenge built on our best values. If we truly believe in the idea of the family of America, where all Americans have a place at the table, then we will embrace this challenge.

Patriotism is not only a love of your country as it exists, but a dream in your heart of the kind of country that can exist, and a willingness to sacrifice for that dream. And there is no more patriotic endeavor than to serve your fellow Americans, especially our most vulnerable.

When it comes to this population, I am reminded of what Sen. Robert Kennedy said in 1968.

We can do better.

We can do better than 88 percent unemployment. We can do better than a life sentence of economic dislocation predicated on one’s special needs.

And we can do better for isolated parents who long for mere dignity and acceptance for their children with special needs.

Tampa Bay can lead the way in having a place at the table for this population.

Will you join me in thinking nationally but acting locally in fighting for this worthy goal to begin here in the Tampa Bay area?

Luis Viera is a Tampa attorney.

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