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GCDD Executive Director Eric Jacobson on The Good Works Show

GCDD Executive Director Eric Jacobson speaks about the Georgia DD Council on The Good Works Show
February 16, 2019
Hosted by Elaine Armstrong and Trenise Lyons

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Coming to the studio in a little bit we have Eric Jacobson, executive director of the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities, tell us what that organization is doing. Definitely serving people with disabilities is near and dear to our heart right here at Goodwill, but it will be interesting to hear what they're doing and hear about some of the advocacy-related things that they are taking on as our legislators are back into session. 

Welcome back to the Good Works show. We are excited to have in the studio with us Eric Jacobson, who is the executive director of the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities. Tell us about the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities and your mission. Well, the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities, first of all is one of those interesting agencies where we are federally funded and we're a state agency at the same time so that makes a really interesting piece to begin with and especially because our mission is to create a systemic change through advocacy and capacity building so that people with development disabilities and their families are more independent. Although I would suggest to you that none of us are totally independent or but we are interdependent and that people with development disabilities are economically self-sufficient, integrated and included in their communities and self determined in their lives.
What the Development Disabilities Bill of Rights and Assistance Act says Councils (and there's one in every state) should be doing so that's what we set our eyes on is to try to make sure that people are independent, productive and included so they can be self determine their lives. We've kind of said here in Georgia is to take that even a step further is, if you look at all people, what we want to be, whether we have a disability or not, is a productive member of our community, however you define that community. But in order to do that we all need access to a real job; need access to real learning experiences; access to a real home and for folks with disabilities it often means you need access to quality supports to have an influence over your life on a daily basis. If you have those things then you're more than likely a productive member of your community. We think we can help that out through the public policy process by providing information, supporting advocacy efforts and then we are fortunate to have the circumstances that we can fund small seed projects in order to demonstrate new or promising practices. In a nutshell, that's what we do and we do with a board who's appointed by the Governor, and a staff that is excellent, none better in the DD Council world Finally the Councils are connected to a network that makes up a what we call the DD Network, and that is the DD Council's protection advocacy agencies in Georgia - that's the Georgia Advocacy Office and then follow the Centers for disability and excellence. In Georgia we have two, one at Georgia State, the Center for Leadership in Disability and one at University of Georgia which is the Institute on Human Development and Disability. So that's us in a nutshell.
So you've given us where you are now, but talk to us a little bit about how and why the organization actually got started. So the DD Councils were actually started in the early nineteen seventies and really came out of a lot of the work that the Kennedy family did even during President Kennedy's administration in the nineteen sixties as a part of recognizing that people with development disabilities were an integral part of our community. So in the early nineteen seventies the first DD Act was established, in fact it was under then Governor Carter that the Georgia DD Council was begun and our mission has kind of changed a lot over the years, just in terms of what they expected from DD Councils and the kind of work that they were doing. But that was based on kind of what was happening in society for people with developmental disabilities we kind of went from everybody was in an institution and nobody went to school, to people were living in the community and people were going to school, so the mission of the organizations all changed based on where we were as a society and what we were doing in order to improve the lives of people development disabilities. So since the seventies for instance we used to have a requirement that we had to have a project employment, now we do, we work on employment, but this not required as part of the Act so those the kinds of things have changed. We've had lots of different pieces of federal and state legislation passed since then that has improved people's lives and kind of pushed our mission further ahead.
So there's alot there, but it may be worth backing up a little bit and explaining to our audience you what the term developmental disabilities encompasses, because people may think they know or maybe have some assumptions about what that means and Ithink it be great to hear from an expert in the field to break it down for us and explain it to everyone. So again like some of the other things, actually the definition has changed over the years. In the seventies when DD Councils were started it was all based on diagnosis so you could identify developmental disabilities by – someone who had Down syndrome, someone who had autism, someone who had cerebral palsy. The old word we use to use was mental retardation, so those were the kinds of things that were laid out as a definition of development disabilities in the early years. But again recognizing where we are as a society and how we want to treat people, that definition changed, so now it's more of a functional definition and it means that anybody who has a mental or physical impairment that happens before the age of twenty-two that is expected to last your lifetime and impacts the areas of daily living – I need help getting out of bed. I need help driving somewhere. I need help hearing. I need help seeing - those kinds of things, those kinds of activities of daily living.
If you meet those requirements then technically you have a development disability. What's interesting though is that so that's just what the Development Disabilities Bill of Rights and Assistance Act says. So you what you talk to the Medicaid folks, they would say they have a different definition of developmental disability. Or if you went to the Georgia Department of Behavioral and Developmental Disabilities, theirs is very neurologically-based, even though they call themselves developmental disabilities. So it's really one of those things where it can be confusing for everyone because there's no standard definition in legislation or in policy.
Does that make it difficult for people to seek services? I would imagine depending on who you go to, if you have a visual impairment or a hearing impairment, they may not even consider that. That's absolutely correct, for example, the areas of daily living or neurological issues. What makes it even more is we have a system that's not necessarily conjoined,  so we have your family member and individual trying to find out where do I start, what do I do, and you might call one agency and they might tell you that's not us, you need to go somewhere else. So actually one of the things that we try to do is to help families figure that out or individuals figure that out. We probably get a number of calls in a week saying help, I don't know where to start, I can't get services for myself, for my family member, can you help me out? And that's kind of what we do.
I felt was really interesting how you talked about something that either you were born with or something that happens to you before the age of twenty two. Because I think that people think about things like a diagnoses that you're born with, but if something happens to you your services are there as well. Well, technically you can have  a car accident of five days before your 22nd birthday and you end up with a spinal cord injury and in need of assistance in three areas of daily living and you would be considered somebody with a developmental disability. However you could have been born blind and because you don't need the assistance of three areas of daily living, you would be considered to be someone with a physical disability and that is a totally different status of services that you would be eligible for. Well, confusing to say the least. Yes, we don't make anything easy. So give us some perspective then -  how many folks are we talking about - because you you mentioned other agencies that some are in the space and we've got about a minute before we have to take a break. But I imagine that there are quite a few, especially now knowing that there is so many different definitions of folks who could seek services, or may be in need of services.
That's a great question and one we get a lot - tell us how many people in our county have development disabilities in our city or whatever - and is a very difficult. In fact the census does not collect that information. When th census collects information, they collect on physical disabilities and somebody who might have a disability, so we don't really have good numbers. What we've accepted is kind of what the CDC has told us - about two percent of population has a development disability and about ten to fifteen percent have a physical disability. It makes it the largest minority in the country when you think about that. So and we all know or love somebody who probably has a disability and so it's really much more prevalent than we think. Yet the numbers are not always good enough for us to talk about. Well great conversation Eric Jacobson is the executive director of the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities. Eric, we're going to come back to ask you a couple more questions and then maybe dig into some of the things that we kind of a little bit more aware of at Goodwill, National Disability Employment Awareness Month later on in the year
Welcome back to the show. We have been chatting with Eric Jacobson, executive director of the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities having a great conversation. Really kind of learning about what the organization does, who they serve, but also breaking down what developmental disabilities are and who they serve. And we are enlightened to know that there aren't that there is a standard definition making it very difficult but necessary for folks like Eric and his team to really be there to help serve and navigate through this with the clients that they serve.  Before we took a break, we said we wanted to talk about something that we are familiar with that at Goodwill. We call it NDEAM but it's really National Disability Employment Awareness Month and it happens every October. We serve quite a few people who have disabilities of all types and because are in the workforce development employment space that's one of the many things that your organization does. So we always look at it in terms of unemployment rate for people with disabilities. We hear alot about that about. Now that everyone is saying the country and the state are at full employment, and you know it's kind of a misnomer for us at Goodwill.
Tell us from your perspective to because we're always talking about that and it's like,  well yes and no. Tell us a little bit about that what you're seeing. So you know generally national statistics tell us that about seventy-five percent of people with disabilities are unemployed. I think you can just put a pin in it right there. We know because of where we work, but I think most people don't understand the unemploy rate in the country has never been like seventy-five percent. What do we know about employment, whether you have a disability or not, if you have a job that means you can buy the things that you need, you can have the housing that you want and the education that you want and gives you self esteem, all those things you need to know about when you go to work.
So it's all a good thing, there's nothing bad about it. But you have to ask the question, why are people with disabilities not employed at the same rate that people without disabilities are? We know that some of it is stigma, we know people may not believe that folks with disabilities have the skills or the talents to go to work. But what we've been doing and I think  we are making some headway in Georgia. I will be very positive about the direction that we are moving a certain levels. If we can figure out how to create job opportunities based on what somebody's talents and skills are, and I always go back to that, because none of us want to work in a job that we don't like or don't have any joy around. So we're always trying to figure out first of all what is somebody's talent, their gift that they can offer somebody else. At the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities, employment was one of our required activities for a number of years, so we've done a number of things to try to not only bring other agencies together, but to demonstrate what possibilities are for people with disabilities. For instance, we have supported for a number of years something called Project SEARCH, which took kids in high school (really their senior and junior year) and gave them, for lack of a better word, a year-long internship at a hospital and we did this at colleges and some other places, where they got to try doing rotations and learning different parts of the hospital, so they can find out if this was something they would enjoy doing. We have about twenty sites across the state and in some of those sites their hiring rate after they leave that internship is like a hundred percent. So kids are really kind of moving into these kinds of positions and not what we would consider normal disability positions like working in the laundry or they're working in the kitchen. We're talking about kids that are working getting patients to different rooms, working in this in the emergency room or the surgical rooms, so they're really gaining some some skills they can use later on in life.
So that's one piece and the second piece is that for many of us, I know my mom worked really hard so I could go to college and she also emphasized college was just the step to get the job. So that's the way we kind of do things. So in Georgia we now have nine inclusive post-secondary education programs around the state where kids with intellectual development disabilities go to school. That's a two year program or a four year program where they build those skills and they all have relocation counselors connected to them so that they're looking for a career. So I go to college, I learn some skills, I'm on campus with everybody else learning the social skills as well, I get a job and I begin to have the life like everybody else. Finally last year the legislature passed and the governor signed, the Employment First Council in Georgia. Across the country states are looking at Employment First and the Employment First Council meaning that employment ought to be the first option for people with disabilities. What often happens is people with disabilities end up sitting at home twiddling their thumbs or going to day programs where the do coloring and things that are not what most of us consider productive. Employment was like the last option. I'll give you an example of how that works - Medicaid funds supported employment and day service programs for people with developmental disabilities. Day service programs are paid seventeen thousand dollars a year to support that individual, supported employment agencies are funded seven thousand dollars. So that to me says, there's a policy problem here in that we've said, we prioritize day service programs versus Employment First so let's switch that around.
There is a council run by the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency that just met for the first time. I'm on that council as well as a number of other people and we're going to be looking at all those policy and programmatic issues so that employment becomes the first option and not the second option. What we've also done is funded a program at the University of Georgia that is working with some of those day service programs to change their business model. But we are not going to say to them just quit doing what you're doing and do this other thing now, even though you've been doing this for thirty years. We want to say we will provide you with the technical assistance to help you do that, and to phase it in, not making an overnight kind of problem. So we think those are the kinds of things that are necessary in order to make more employment available for people with developmental disabilities and other disabilities. Then work on the issue of what companies want to hire and I think that's the big issue right now. There is something called the United States Business Leadership Network which works on the idea of companies hiring people though corporations. Georgia is a huge place for national corporations to have their headquarters, so we will be working with some of them to try to expand opportunities. We have a couple minutes left so I want to make sure that our listeners know how they can support your efforts because you guys are doing really incredible work.