Vocational rehabilitation services strives to narrow employment gap for Alabamians with disabilities

By Jane Elizabeth Burdeshaw, commissioner
Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services

“What do you do for a living?”

We’ve all asked or been asked that question.

It’s a great conversation starter that helps us learn more about a person. It also underscores our society’s emphasis on the value of having an occupation.

The question is no less important to a person with a disability.

For people with disabilities, employment is about much more than having a job. It is the great equalizer. Working empowers people with disabilities by giving them the means to live independently and to contribute to and participate in their communities.

And yet, employment for people with disabilities lags far behind employment for people who do not have disabilities. In Alabama, the employment rate for individuals with disabilities is a meager 27.5% representing a 45.5 percentage point gap when compared to individuals without disabilities (source: Respect Ability).

Working in tandem with our community partners, other state agencies, and the Alabama Workforce Council, Alabama’s Vocational Rehabilitation Service is striving to narrow that gap through specialized employment- and education-related services that assist people with disabilities in finding and maintaining employment. VRS’ customized services and expertise make employment a reality even for individuals with significant disabilities.

In fiscal year 2018, VRS assisted almost 3,500 Alabamians with disabilities in finding employment, including 482 with the most-significant disabilities.

Of course, that accomplishment would not be possible without willing employers.

Oftentimes, business owners are reluctant to hire people with disabilities because of misconceptions related to job performance, reliability, and cost as well as a lack of familiarity with the resources that are available to ensure a worker’s success on the job.

In reality, though, hiring people with disabilities makes good business sense. The proof is in the results, and it has been my experience that one successful placement with an employer “kicks open” the door to future job opportunities for other workers with disabilities. It’s a win-win scenario: The employer gains a loyal worker and benefits from a more-diverse and inclusive workplace, while the employee gains and benefits from the satisfaction that comes from having a job.

Through the VRS Business Relations Program, employers have access to disability experts who provide no-cost services such as job analysis; recruiting; pre-hire screening; job-site training; post-hire follow-up; disability management; and employer training on such topics as the Americans with Disabilities Act, the medical aspects of disability, the reasonable accommodations process, and disability awareness and etiquette. VRS business relations consultants also offer employers information on financial incentives, pre-hire work experiences, and on-the-job training reimbursements.

VRS is proud to be contributing to Gov. Kay Ivey’s AlabamaWorks Success Plus program through the various services and supports we provide to job-seekers, workers and employers. Specifically, we see VRS as critical to improving work opportunities for a population that faces significant barriers to employment.

As we strive to achieve the goals of the Success Plus initiative, we are working diligently to assure that people with disabilities are included and prepared to join other Alabamians in experiencing the gratification and fulfillment of gainful employment.

For more information about VRS and its services and programs, call 1-800-441-7607. To learn more about AlabamaWorks, visit www.alabamaworks.com.

14 hours ago

A victory in court for school choice

The U.S. Supreme Court recently delivered a “big win” for school choice and religious freedom. School choice enables competition, which economists find generally improves the quality of goods and services. I believe that this result will apply to education, and specifically public schools.

Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue involved 2015 legislation allowing tax-deductible contributions for scholarships to private, non-profit schools. The Montana Supreme Court struck down the act in 2018 as an unconstitutional use of public funds for religious purposes, including any school or college controlled by a church. Montana’s constitutional provision is a “Blaine Amendment” dating to the 19th century to prohibit state aid to parochial schools; 37 states, including Alabama, have Blaine Amendments.

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The constitutional issues involved were the First Amendment’s separation of church and state and religious discrimination in government policy. Chief Justice John Roberts’ majority opinion found the Blaine Amendment discriminatory: “A State need not subsidize private education. But once a State decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.”

The Montana Supreme Court struck down the entire school choice program based on the Blaine Amendment. Although Montana’s legislature could have enacted a scholarship program applying to only non-church private schools, this would have significantly restricted parents’ choice. According to the Institute for Justice, which litigated Espinoza, Blaine Amendments are often used to block school choice. Only a narrow interpretation of Alabama’s provision allowed the Alabama Accountability Act to withstand challenge.

Separation of church and state is wise constitutional doctrine. Still, I do not see the scholarships as violating separation of church and state. The public “dollars” involved are taxes foregone. Church-affiliated schools often operate at a loss, so tuition scholarships will not yield profits to support other activities and presumably provide enough education to qualify as schools.

George Mason law professor Ilya Somin offers an illustrative comparison. No one worries that tax exemptions for religious charities or police and fire protection for churches constitute state support for religion. Tax deductions for scholarships do not establish a state religion.

Church-affiliated schools provide a variety of education consistent with their doctrine and moral teachings. The goal of school reform should be, as economist John Merrifield emphasizes, a diverse menu of options to suit students’ varied learning styles and parents’ values. Church-affiliated schools accomplish this.

School choice policies will make Americans more equal. Affluent Americans, who can afford private school tuition, have long enjoyed school choice.

American higher education features school choice. Alabamians can attend any of the state’s 14 four-year universities or more than 30 two-year colleges at in-state tuition rates. These institutions offer diverse educational options. Two-year colleges offer vocational programs and inexpensive core classes. Four-year universities include one modeled after a liberal arts school, large and small campuses, and numerous online degrees. Federal student aid and loans help make private colleges affordable.

By contrast, K-12 public schools require students to attend their assigned school. After paying taxes to support government schools, many families cannot afford private school tuition. The economic case for public education stresses ensuring all students can afford schooling, which school choice accomplishes.

Choices unleash quality-enhancing competition. Some of America’s best public schools are in affluent suburbs where districts must compete for students because parents can afford private schools. It is tempting to attribute suburban districts’ quality spending, but statistics show otherwise. In 2018, Baltimore city schools spent $250 less per pupil than Montgomery County (Maryland) and $1,000 more than Fairfax County (Virginia) in suburban Washington, two of America’s most affluent counties.

In time school choice will force beneficial changes in public school curriculum. Currently, the curriculum is a political football which both parties seek to control. Teachers educate children in classrooms; politicians in Montgomery or Washington shape learning only through bureaucratic controls forcing a curriculum on local schools. School choice will empower parents to find schools that help their children learn. To successfully compete for students, control will need to be devolved to schools and teachers, which I see as a very good thing.

Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Troy University.

16 hours ago

VIDEO: More municipalities opt for mandatory masks, schools head towards in-class instruction, Sessions/Tuberville race nears the end and more on Alabama Politics This Week …

Radio talk show host Dale Jackson and Alabama Democratic Executive Committee member Lisa Handback take you through this week’s biggest political stories, including:

— Will Governor Kay Ivey consider a statewide mask ordinance as more municipalities adopt ordinances and pressure continues to mount?

— Are parents going to feel safe sending their kids to school in the Fall?

— Who will win the Republican runoff between former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville?

Jackson and Handback are joined by former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to discuss the runoff election for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by U.S. Senator Doug Jones (D-AL).

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Jackson closes the show with a “parting shot” at people who think the government can’t put in more restrictions when they have shown they can, and probably will, do more if the coronavirus pandemic doesn’t get under control.

Dale Jackson is a contributing writer to Yellowhammer News and hosts a talk show from 7-11 AM weekdays on WVNN.

17 hours ago

Alabama sisters continue their family’s farming legacy

Sisters Allie Corcoran and Cassie Young loved growing up on a farm in Eufaula, but once they left home and earned their degrees at Auburn University, they realized their hearts were still at the family farm.

“I always knew I wanted to come home and be part of the farm, but I didn’t know where I would fit in,” Young said. “The only things I have ever felt close to, or had a desire to be a part of, were farming and working with people. At Auburn, I considered a career in family and adolescent counseling, but I knew it would be difficult to find work in this field near home and I was unwilling to move.”

When the sisters were growing up, their family raised crops such as cotton, peanuts, soybeans, corn, grain sorghum and wheat, along with cattle. The family managed a peach orchard.

Their childhood experiences and love of farming pushed them to find their eventual calling, and they opened Backyard Orchards near Eufaula in 2010.

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“Our father had the idea to start a u-pick operation,” Young said. “We had an exciting concept for a new family venture and found the perfect location, so we decided to become entrepreneurs.”

Backyard Orchards gave the sisters the path they longed for in fitting into the family business. They offer u-pick and freshly packed produce.

Fruits currently ripe for picking are peaches and blueberries. There is a variety of fresh vegetables available, including potatoes, onions, squash, zucchini, tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, field corn, sweet corn, peppers, peas and okra.

There is an onsite cafe that serves homemade pies, fudge and ice cream – the perfect end to a day on the farm. The barn, pavilion and grounds can be rented for weddings, birthday parties, corporate events and more.

Under COVID-19 safety measures, visitors are not required to have a reservation, but should follow these guidelines:

  • Stay with your group and remember to social distance while in the fields and store.
  • When the store is busy and social distance is challenged, send one group representative into the store to pay for and/or order food and ice cream.
  • There are sinks for handwashing located in the restrooms. Hand sanitizer is located throughout the store.
  • Pick up café orders from the window located outside on the front porch.

The orchards allowed the sisters to carry on the traditions from childhood that they always dreamed of passing on to their own children.

“Some of my fondest memories are the simplest ones involving our whole family: playing in the cottonseed and corn, jumping on hay bales and cotton modules, riding around with my dad to check on pivots or crops and playing in the irrigation with my sisters and cousins,” Young said. “Farming is a difficult life, but the family experiences have made it a wonderful life.”

Young and her husband have three children: Gardner, 10, Sterling, 7, and Cade, 4.

“Gardner has been picking squash with me since he was a baby,” Young said. “He now helps his dad pick and sell watermelons. Sterling wants to start helping me at the local farmers market. Cade is still too young to help on the farm, but he loves to eat the ice cream.”

Young sees them creating memories and experiences like she had with her sister as a child.

“I hope they all want to play a role in either the orchard or the family farm one day, but only if that is where their hearts lead them,” she said. “Right now, they are growing up the same way I did and enjoying the simple joys of childhood on the farm.”

The sisters continue looking for ways to enhance the orchards and develop the business. Plans are in place for planting blackberries, expanding the peach orchard and increasing the strawberries plants.

To learn more about Backyard Orchards and plan a family outing, visit the website or follow them on Facebook.

(Courtesy of Alabama News Center)

22 hours ago

Alabama native Rachel Baribeau is Changing the Narrative and expanding her own

Sportscasting is a tough business for anyone, but has been traditionally even more difficult for women. That’s why the change in direction for Rachel Baribeau won’t make sense … until you hear her explain it.

“I am always evolving – as a woman, as a queen, as a daughter and a friend and as a fiancee and a future wife – I am always trying to be better. I’m a lifelong learner.”

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Rachel Baribeau is Changing the Narrative in college sports and beyond from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

The Auburn graduate and former Pell City resident had a career many would consider perfect: covering SEC football and other sports, from the sidelines and from her college football talk show on Sirius/XM (where she was the network’s first female college sports host).

Baribeau was well-respected enough among her peers to be granted a Heisman Trophy ballot. But it was her work away from the microphone that made the most noise.

“The idea that there is royalty inside of all of us; that there is legacy and purpose and greatness.” Baribeau beams as she describes the impact of the conversations she had been having with college athletes.

Changing the Narrative” was Baribeau’s passion project – a movement that promotes positive mental health and inspiring people to build a positive legacy for others. She took her “Purpose – Passion – Platform” message on a nationwide tour of college football programs, filled with candid heart-to-heart conversations.

After spending four years on this consulting journey, Baribeau announced last October that she would be walking away from sports to concentrate on Changing the Narrative full time.

“I started with this desire and belief that athletes could trend for something other than bad news,” Baribeau said.

Now a nonprofit, Changing the Narrative has expanded further. Baribeau is now in demand in locker rooms, board rooms, law enforcement agencies and entire athletic conferences. “We already have the Big Ten on board; how great would it be to be in all of the Power Five conferences?”

Baribeau is scaling the program in several ways. First, the pandemic has forced a shift to more online training and modules. Second, the material is being tweaked to skew younger for high school audiences. Finally, Baribeau is training a network of other speakers including former athletes who can bring their own experiences of Changing the Narrative to even more audiences.

(Courtesy of Alabama News Center)

22 hours ago

Alabama entrepreneurs can apply now for Walmart’s Open Call for products

Walmart’s seventh annual Open Call is underway for entrepreneurs dreaming of landing U.S.-manufactured products on Walmart shelves by successfully pitching their wares to company officials during online meetings.

“Walmart’s Annual Open Call event gives us a unique occasion to identify new suppliers who can meet our customers’ needs with unique and innovative products manufactured or produced in the U.S.,” said Laura Phillips, Walmart senior vice president for Global Sourcing and U.S. Manufacturing.

“During this year of unprecedented challenges for U.S. businesses, Walmart remains committed to sourcing products made, grown or assembled in the U.S.,” Phillips said.

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In 2013, Walmart announced a 10-year commitment to help boost job creation and U.S. manufacturing through buying an additional $250 billion in products supporting American jobs. Walmart’s Open Call is one way the company continues to invest in the commitment.

“By Investing in products that support American jobs, we are able to bring new exciting products to our customers, support new jobs in our local communities and invest in small business across the country,” Phillips said.

The Open Call, scheduled for Oct. 1, kicks off Walmart’s celebration of U.S. Manufacturing Month and will include programming similar to previous years. In addition to one-on-one pitch meetings with Walmart buyers, participants will have an opportunity to hear directly from Walmart executives and learn from company leaders during small breakout sessions designed to inform, empower and encourage suppliers.

“For the first time, this year’s Open Call event will be virtual, enabling even broader participation from potential new suppliers,” Phillips said. “We know how important this opportunity is for many small businesses, especially this year, and we are looking forward to seeing the new product submissions and meeting potential new suppliers.”

This year’s Open Call attendees could secure deals ranging from a handful of stores in local markets to supplying hundreds, or even thousands, of stores, Sam’s Clubs and on Walmart.com.

Gwen Hurt, owner of Shoe Crazy wine, participated in Walmart’s 2018 Open Call, where a Walmart buyer decided to test her product in 66 stores.

“We were walking into an entirely new and welcoming world,” said Hurt. “Everyone was so professional and kind throughout the process.”

“We’ve been thrilled to work with Walmart and are excited about the continual growth of our product,” Hurt continued. “Thanks to this relationship, we’ve been able to expand our operations to 15 employees while reinvesting in our community through the purchase of a once-abandoned warehouse and additional resources.”

“It’s a dream come true for our family,” Hurt said. Walmart is expanding Shoe Crazy Wine to 118 stores across Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia.

The deadline to apply to participate in this year’s Open Call for U.S.-manufactured products is Aug. 10. The application and information about the event are at Walmart-jump.com.

Information about Walmart can be found by visiting corporate.walmart.com, on Facebook at facebook.com/walmart and on Twitter at twitter.com/walmart.