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By JIM HENRY
Special to Roane County News
The ability to shape your own destiny is what sets America apart.
To be able to pursue the American Dream while performing your chosen vocation is a privilege that many people take for granted. The Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities and our community partners support approximately 8,000 Tennesseans with intellectual disabilities to live, work and to be a part of their communities.
However, for the majority of the people we support, the opportunity to be a part of the workforce still proves elusive. This is not for a lack of talent but the challenge is found in communication.
There are three central myths: 1) That people with intellectual disabilities cannot learn; 2) That people with disabilities expect to be hired even if they do not possess the necessary qualifications and experience for the job; and 3) People with disabilities do not want to work.
Most people are familiar with the term “mental retardation.” Unfortunately, one of the reasons for its familiarity is that it has been used quite frequently as a term of derision. Fortunately, in recognition of this history, there is a movement to replace the term with “intellectual disability.”
One of the common myths about an intellectual disability is that it completely prohibits someone from learning. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Starting a new job is often cited as one of life’s most stressful times.
In addition to learning new job duties, individuals are learning how the place works — from the copy machine to how to communicate with co-workers.
People with intellectual disabilities hold a wide variety of jobs — from filing to prepping surgical suites to bagging groceries to being an administrative assistant. While this may surprise some, when you consider that we all look for jobs that use our skills and abilities — it makes sense.
The second myth is that hiring people with disabilities means considering applicants who do not meet the job’s qualification and skill requirements.
Again, nothing could be further from the truth. It may mean hiring someone who gets the job done in a slightly different way but not at the expense of the quality and timely outcome an employer expects.
For example, someone may use a checklist to serve as a reminder or uses pictures rather than text to understand a new task.
To those who might be skeptics, I pose this question: would you apply for a job that you could not do? Of course not. An immense part of why we work is the satisfaction of a job well done.
The third myth is that people with disabilities do not want to work. Annually, DIDD and the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities conduct an employment survey of the people supported by Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. As of March 30, the survey reported that nearly 1,300 people are working and that an additional 786 want to go to work.
If you are a person with a disability, a friend, a family member, an employer, I invite you to help us to bridge the gap between people with disabilities and employment.
America has a rich history of innovation. It is 2011, and devices the size of a credit card can help us navigate through traffic, video conference with colleagues across the continent and stream the latest country hit.
Twenty years ago, all of these activities seemed implausible. America has never been short on ingenuity when it comes to technology — and we cannot afford a shortage of ingenuity when it comes to utilizing the talents and gifts of people with disabilities.
Jim Henry, a Kingston native, is commissioner for the Tennessee Department for Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.