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Local programs combat unemployment rates for people with disabilities
Melissa Sanchez disinfects an exercise ball Friday at the Northeast Georgia Medical Center rehabilitation room. Through Project SEARCH, Sanchez is getting real-life work experience as an inpatient rehabilitation technician to help her make a successful transition from high school to adult life.

Omar Espinoza works the night shift at Mayfield Dairy Farms.

“I wake up, work out and then get ready for work,” the 21-year-old said. “I go in at 10 p.m. and come out at 7 a.m.”

Espinoza was hired as a temporary worker about five months ago, after a year of working at a local chicken processing plant where he was responsible for operating the machine that cuts the meat apart.

Employment has always been a part of Espinoza’s plan for life, but having had problems learning how to read throughout school, he wasn’t always sure what he would be able to do, knowing job opportunities might be scarcer for him.

He’s not alone. A recent survey by the Special Olympics found only 44 percent of adults with intellectual disabilities are currently in the labor force, either employed or looking for work, while just 34 percent are actually working.

That is compared to 83 percent of nondisabled, working-age adults who are in the workforce.

Intellectual disability can include conditions such as autism or Down syndrome, and includes people with an IQ of about 75 or less.

Espinoza’s learning disability doesn’t fit into that category. And luckily he’s been employed for nearly two years, including a year while still in high school at Wood’s Mill Academy in Gainesville. But he recognizes finding employment is a struggle not only for himself but for others, including former classmates.

“A lot of good-paying jobs, you have to do a lot of reading and a lot of explaining but you can’t explain it by words,” he said. “You have to write it. So a lot of people ... they stay at lower jobs because it doesn’t have that much responsibility.”

About 28 percent of working-age adults with intellectual disabilities have never held a job. On the positive side, 62 percent of people with disabilities who are employed have been in their position for three years or more.

The goal of increasing those percentages is at the heart of Susan Wright’s job as the transition coordinator and Project Success instructor for the Hall County School District.

“I’m the school system liaison for both Project SEARCH and Project Success,” Wright said. “Some of those students would have not had the opportunities to train in a business model and be able to work on their soft skills, their vocational skills, their independent living skills in a setting that provides a free education for them.”

Project SEARCH is a national program that puts students in authentic work environments; for example, Northeast Georgia Medical Center is a local partner where a small group of students interns regularly.

Project Success is a Hall County initiative, Wright said, giving students skills at Lanier Charter Career Academy where they can train on-site in the child care center, conference room, bistro and cafe.

“We have community partners that also allow us to come in and do training just like they would at the hospital,” Wright added, citing opportunities at Walgreens and inside the Hall County Government Center.

To accomplish the students’ goals, the school district works closely with Georgia Mountains Workforce Development, operated by the Georgia Mountains Regional Commission.

“In the Hall County community, it seems that we have some businesses that have a heart for people with disabilities,” Youth Department Supervisor Jessica Williams said. “And they are more than willing to hire and give them a chance to take on that job.”

Still, she agreed it remains more difficult for people with disabilities to find a job.

“It can be an issue in any community,” Williams said. “When you look at smaller communities, you have less job opportunities and that can sometimes play a role in maybe some of the ones with disabilities not getting hired in some positions.”

For his part, Espinoza is hopeful his temporary position at Mayfield Dairy will lead to a permanent, full-time role. He then wants to go to college, possibly to become a dental hygienist.

“Just don’t give up,” he said. “I’ve never given up. I keep trying. Even when I feel like it’s hard, I keep trying.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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