CA employment bill offers hope for disabled women

Artist Lauren Wilson. Photo by Z'ma Wyatt

By Kim Harris, shades Magazine

For Monique Harris and Lauren Wilson, life has been anything but easy.

Both women – who are afflicted with Cerebral Palsy and were told they would never graduate high school – have earned college degrees, raised children and become active members in their communities in a state that hasn’t always recognized the potential of people with disabilities.

With a recent push towards greater advocacy and awareness, future generations of individuals with developmental disabilities have greater opportunities to reach their goals. The passing last October of the California Employment First Bill – AB 287, which establishes an Employment First Policy for people with these type of disabilities – takes a positive step closer to increasing employment opportunities for people like Harris and Wilson.

The Employment First Committee continues to discuss and inform Legislature ways to achieve higher employment opportunities for people with developmental disabilities. Along with advocacy for this demographic of typically highly unemployed individuals, the committee recommends better preparation for individuals with developmental disabilities in the transition from school into the workforce, through discussions services and planning with these students who are 14 years of age or older.

Although some might say the progress toward equal opportunity for people with disabilities has been difficult, employees in the field supporting those people agree that a disability should not hold someone back from being involved in the community.

“Some segments of the general public may have low expectations for people with disabilities,” said Bill Pelter, executive director of the Cerebral Palsy Center in Oakland.

Pelter explained that when individuals with disabilities are provided the support necessary to maximize their talents and interests, whether it is with physical or personal care, many are capable of employment.

“Everybody deserves an opportunity to take their place in the community,” Pelter added.

Monique Harris and assistant Sammy LaFargue at the Cerebral Palsy Center in Oakland. Photo by Kim Harris.

The need for greater opportunity is more than an issue of inclusion, but a human right. And for women with disabilities, the stakes are often higher when children are factored into the equation. The issue becomes not only about the health, income and stability of the mother, but also the well being of her child.

Harris, 45, has lived with CP her entire life. A line from one of her poems describes her struggles as a mother with a disability:

“Why are my knees dark? After years of crawling they feel lumpy and bony. My lumpy bony knees carried me from one room to another when I was pregnant with the greatest gift of all: my son.”

Harris was a major advocate for AB 287 and has started a business of her own, making word boards for people who have difficulty communicating. She attends the Cerebral Palsy Center on a regular basis, and it was there that her knack for designing became more than a hobby; when she was given the tools to move forward with an idea she had for her graphic picture boards.

“When I couldn’t get a job at all, they gave me a chance and I worked hard,” Harris said.

The Oakland resident has always gone above and beyond the expectations of others. Not only did she graduate high school, but Harris also earned a degree in business in 1991.

“What Monique and her peers show is we can do it if we have the pieces in place,” Pelter said.

The Employment First task force will seek to do just this. The committee will present ideas that will push legislation, which would benefit people with disabilities who are seeking employment or micro-enterprises. Although the bill will not specifically create jobs, the bill will open dialogue between the different disabilities departments and the legislature.

“That could have far reaching effects on how departments interact with people,” said Michael Rosenberg, executive director of Developmental Disabilities, Area Board 3.

Rosenberg said a better transition is needed from school to the job market and more options for people with disabilities to create innovative businesses should be discussed. Of course, he said, money would be a major factor.

“If the dollars aren’t there, then that’s where the downfall is,” Rosenberg said. “It will be up to the Legislature and the governor ultimately, but at least now we have a vehicle to get there.”

Lauren Wilson poses with one of her pieces at Charcoal Park in Oakland. Photo by Z'ma Wyatt.

Oakland resident Wilson sells her art all over the Bay Area. The 29-year-old has limited motion in her arms and legs, and a dislocated hip that makes moving very painful. However, Wilson does not let her disability get in the way of her artwork.

Art is something Wilson has been active in since she was 8, when she first learned she was capable of painting. Her mother was an artist and Wilson said she became interested in art by watching her work. She paints by placing the paintbrush in her mouth and moving her head to create the colorful images she is known for.

“My mom said, ‘put a paintbrush in your mouth,’ so that’s what I did,” said Wilson.

Flowers are her specialty, but she also has paintings of people, including Michael Jackson and a set of ceramic plates depicting President Barack Obama. For Wilson, her art is more than a hobby.

“I need the money to get by,” said Wilson.

Money that she earns from selling her art in galleries like Charcoal Park in the Fruitvale District of Oakland and the National Institute of Arts and Disabilities in Richmond, as well as money that she makes selling greeting cards on the streets of Berkeley, she puts toward caring for her son Patrick, who is 4.

Wilson lives with her Aunt, Rhonda Davis, who helps her with Patrick. Although art is a major part of life at home, Wilson has other hopes for Patrick.

“I want him to be a football player so he can put me up when I get too old,” said Wilson.

Although Harris and Wilson are two examples of women who were able to create work for themselves and have had success in doing so, the unemployment rate for people with developmental disabilities is still high. The hope of many is that now – with legislation such as Employment First – more people who require support in finding and performing work will be represented.

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One Response to “CA employment bill offers hope for disabled women”

  1. Shirley Everett-dicko August 25, 2010 at 4:37 pm #

    Wonderful story. You go girl!

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