Groups look to work with disabled community on business issues

Posted July 29, 2011, at 5:23 p.m.

Agencies in the greater Bangor area are working together to figure out how to better reach out to disabled Mainers who want to work or start their own business.

The state received a $1.5 million grant last October for three years of work to improve education, training and employment opportunities for youth and adults with disabilities who were unemployed or underemployed, said Gwen Lapointe, a disability resource coordinator with the Eastern Maine Development Corp.

Lapointe said there is a common misperception among both people who are disabled and the general public that those receiving Social Security Insurance or Social Security Disability Insurance can’t work or they’ll lose their benefits.

“That actually is not necessarily so — there are now work incentive rules that do allow people to earn and save — but you have to know what those rules are. That can be a stumbling block for a lot of people,” said Lapointe.

According to state statistics, of Maine’s 1.3 million people, there are 53,960 who are receiving Social Security Disability Insurance and 32,485 who are receiving Social Security Insurance; of those, 14,720 also receive Social Security Disability, so there’s overlap.

Lapointe also pointed to numbers showing that while the poverty rate of working-age people in Maine was 8.3 percent, the poverty rate of working-age people with disabilities was 26.4 percent in 2007.

“It’s almost like a myth that people who are on disability are living high on the hog and don’t have to work. Disability is a subsistence-level type of thing,” she said. “A lot of people, rather than not wanting to work, don’t feel safe working. They’re afraid if they try to work, someone’s going to take away their safety net.”

Earlier this summer, organizations that work with disabled people, groups that help connect people with jobs, community action program representatives, some banks and others met at the Greater Bangor Asset Summit for People with Disabilities.

Lapointe said the summit showed that the area was rich in strategies for getting people to work and in programs for helping low-income families and people. But the various groups don’t necessarily talk much, and the goal is to change that, she said.

M. Jane Searles, of Women, Work and Community, was one of the organizers. Her group has helped connect disabled people with work opportunities or with starting a business. But generally speaking, for the economic development community, “it’s a group we all don’t think about very often in terms of our work — or we just don’t know how to serve them,” said Searles.

Now groups in both the disability services and economic development worlds are meeting and talking at least on a quarterly basis, she said. The benefits go both ways. Disabled people can begin building the assets that take them above poverty, said Lapointe.

By earning money beyond disability payments, they can do things like save for school, have a savings or checking account, start a business, buy a home and more.

“All the things that we do to increase our self-sufficiency,” said Lapointe.

And for economic development experts, the communication is opening up a new community of potential business owners or employees.

“We’d better start using all of our human resources to get our economy on track,” said Searles.

Lapointe said the groups want to organize a financial fitness fair aimed at helping disabled people and also want to provide training for service agencies and businesses, so all the information about programs and working with disabled people can be shared.

“We have kind of an ambitious agenda — but these are the kinds of things we’re looking to do as a community,” she said. “What we are trying to do is start a new conversation that will change the expectations about how people with disabilities are going to participate in the economic life of our community.”

For more information, email Lapointe at glapointe@emdc.org.

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