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VCDR Celebrates Disability Awareness Day

February 26, 2014

Employment and empowerment were on people’s minds at the State House on Feb. 19 as the Vermont Coalition for Disability Rights celebrated Disability Awareness Day. About 300 members, friends and allies of VCDR gathered to spread the message: “Empower People with Disabilities: It’s Only Right(s).”

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott kicked off the day by welcoming attendees to the Statehouse – many of whom were visiting for the first time. He shared the story of his father, who was severely injured during the World War II D-Day invasion of Normandy, France, had to have both legs amputated and was fortunate to have survived. Howard Scott went on to lead a very rich life that included getting married, having three sons and working for the state of Vermont. He is remembered, among other things, for being a consummate gentleman.

“I hope you remember my dad, what he struggled with and what he accomplished and how it relates to each and every one of you,” Scott said.

Following Scott’s welcome, various workshops were held along with a press conference about employment for people with disabilities. Speakers included Chester A. Finn, who in the early 1990s spent six years working in a sheltered workshop, where he made about $4 for two weeks of work. Finn, who is blind and has a developmental disability, got out of that sheltered workshop. For about 17 years, he has worked as a client advocate for the New York State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities. In 2008, Finn co-founded Community Empowerment Programs, Inc., which provides community services and educational programming for people with disabilities.

Finn has been in the national spotlight recently for advocating that President Obama include people with disabilities in his executive order to raise the minimum wage on new federal contracts. People with disabilities were originally not going to be included in the executive order, but thanks to the efforts of Finn and others, Obama changed course.

“A lot of times people forget about us,” said Finn, referring to people with disabilities, “and that work is important to us as well as to everyone. I can’t wait to get up in the morning at quarter to five when my clock goes off so that I can get to work. It’s important to have everyone have an opportunity.”

Bryan Dague of the University of Vermont-Center on Disability and Community Inclusion also shared his thoughts at the press conference. Dague provides training and technical assistance to supported employment programs and high school transition programs throughout the state of Vermont.

“Nationally the number one topic in this country right now is employment,” said Dague, noting that work is really important to everyone and that people should get paid what they’re worth.

“Vermont’s been pretty progressive and fortunate to have closed down the sheltered workshops and segregated employment,” said Dague, “but nationally about 75 percent of people with intellectual disabilities and developmental disabilities are still in segregated sheltered workshops. The average pay of a sheltered workshop is $2.50 an hour but it goes down about as low as 6 cents an hour.”

Finn gave a keynote address in the evening on Disability Awareness Day, which was enjoyed by many legislators, among others. The keynote was followed by a panel discussion featuring Nicole LeBlanc of Green Mountain Self-Advocates, George Nostrand of Vermont Psychiatric Survivors, Deaf storyteller and comedian René Pellerin and educator Tom Van Meter.

The Vermont Coalition for Disability Rights is a cross-disability advocacy organization. VCDR member organizations, staff members and volunteers engage individuals with disabilities and family members in Vermont’s legislative and policy activities, enabling them to have a voice in the administrative and legislative decisions that affect their daily lives and civil rights.

VCDR gratefully acknowledges the support of the Vermont Developmental Disabilities Council, the Vermont Statewide Independent Living Council and the Center on Disability & Community Inclusion, UVM. Their financial support made Disability Awareness Day possible.