IN THIS ISSUE:
Living the Dream
Rancher, fishing guide, retailer, dog trainer, manufacturer. These are just a few of the careers of people with disabilities in Montana.
In the United States people with disabilities start their own companies at nearly twice the rate of people without disabilities, according to UM researcher Tom Seekins. In addition, people with disabilities in rural areas are self-employed at a higher rate than those in metropolitan areas, he says. Often its their only option for self-sufficiency.
Seekins directs the Research and Training Center on Rural Rehabilitation Services, which is part of the multifaceted Montana University Affiliated Rural Institute on Disabilities. Now in its 11th year, RTC:Rural, as the center is known, is one of 40 research and training centers in the country. It is funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research of the U.S. Department of Education.
RTC:Rural staff study problems of health-care service and delivery, employment, transportation, housing, community planning, and integration faced by people with any kind of disability living in rural communities. Along with other researchers at the Rural Institute, their aim is to influence national policy and provide practical assistance to service providers at the state and local levels.
Living the dream
But, although self-employment is part of the American Dream, she says, it has been overlooked by the vocational rehabilitation system, which focuses on finding jobs for people as employees.
Last year Arnold worked closely with Montanas U.S. Rep. Rick Hill and other members of Congress to get self-employment acknowledged as a goal of vocational rehabilitation alongside competitive and supported employment in the reauthorization of the National Rehabilitation Act.
Guided by the Act, Congress funds vocational rehabilitation programs and federal-state partnerships to provide education, training, job placement, counseling and some medical rehabilitation to people who because of a disability have been unable to work or to return to work after an injury. Vocational rehabilitation helps about 200,000 people a year become employed, and about 2.5 percent of these clients successfully move into self-employment.
Including self-employment in the Rehabilitation Act legitimizes its use by voc-rehab agencies, Arnold says, and that puts it on an equal footing with competitive and supported employment as one more tool for people with disabilities to become self-sufficient.
Both Seekins and Arnold say that attitudes toward voc-rehab have changed in recent years for various reasons, including greater participation by consumers in the rehabilitation process.
To help voc-rehab providers go about self-employment training in a more systematic way, Arnold has developed a curriculum for voc-rehab counselors on how to understand and evaluate a business plan so they can make informed decisions regarding the feasibility of a clients proposal. She also has consulted with representatives from the state Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, who recently met to evaluate Montanas policies and procedures regarding self-employment for people with disabilities.
As incoming president of the American Association on Disability and Health, Seekins is squarely in both the rehabilitation and health-promotion camps.
I cant say which is more important to achieving self-sufficiency and a good quality of life, he says.
Secondary conditions such as physical deconditioning, pressure sores, poor nutrition, urinary tract infections, depression and pain typically go unaddressed but account for nearly half of all medical costs, he says. Improving the overall health of people with disabilities can have a major impact on their lives, such as reducing health-care costs.
An RTC:Rural survey developed for use in voc-rehab settings identifies people who are experiencing secondary health conditions and are at risk for not succeeding in employment. If such people can be identified and given simple supports, Seekins says, this can be turned around.
Recently he has begun testing a redesigned survey at sites in Montana, Kansas, Missouri, Texas, Mississippi, California, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and New York.
Along with research into economic development and health promotion for people with disabilities, Rural Institute researchers work on ways to amend Social Security regulations that threaten people with a loss of benefits if they work at all or earn more than a prescribed amount. Other projects are concerned with assistive technology that can help people with disabilities deal with physical barriers in the workplace and elsewhere.
Disability is part of life, Seekins says. People with disabilities have the same dreams and desires as people without disabilities.
The Rural Institute and RTC:Rural want to see these dreams realized.
-- Caroline Lupfer Kurtz