Work is essential for people of all abilities
Here in the North Country, where the ravages of this poor economy are most evident, a higher percentage of people with developmental disabilities are employed than anywhere else in the state. I learned this statistic recently at a breakfast hosted by Northern Human Services honoring over 50 local employers.These employees, with varying levels of permanent mental impairments, were once stored in horrific, heartless institutions, and gradually over the last 30 years community integration became a public policy goal.Steve Finnegan-Allen, employment coordinator for Northern Human Services in Berlin, remembers those days and has been working locally for 33 years to make life better for this vulnerable and often undervalued population.Area employers -- mostly locally owned businesses -- should be commended, as Finnegan-Allen said, for "focusing on abilities, not disabilities." Most employers said that once the initial risk was taken they have been rewarded with great employees -- who take pride in their work, and are positive, enthusiastic and dedicated.Of course, they do the hard, humble work -- that increasingly many others won't do or don't do for long. Simply put, these people are grateful to have a job and to be contributing members of their community and their own advancement. Work is important and an integral part of citizenship. Policy-wise, we should reward work, not welfare, for people of all abilities. Doing something is always better than doing nothing. No doubt, low-wage work may not totally replace public assistance, but it may create opportunities, improve self-worth and develop skills.But all of this starts with employers willing to take a risk and getting beyond the old stereotypes. The North Country is fortunate to have a business community that is small enough to care and smart enough to see value in investing in its people.Jeff Woodburn of Dalton is a regular contributor to the New Hampshire Business Review. This article first appeared in the Berlin Reporter.