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Constance Alexander: Communities benefit when their workplaces are accessible and inclusive

When Carrissa Johnson sends me an email, I pay attention. As Satellite Office Manager of Murray’s Center for Accessible Living, she champions causes affecting people with disabilities and shares valuable information associated with this often overlooked and under-employed group.

The other day she forwarded an announcement about a free screening and panel discussion of an important film, “Bottom Dollars,” that exposes problems with segregated workplaces and low wages relegated to people with disabilities. The Market House Theatre in Paducah is hosting the event, scheduled for Wednesday, September 5 from 6 – 8 pm.

Rather than relying on statistics to tell the story, “Bottom Dollar” showcases personal experiences and poignant and pointed interviews to promote inclusion, equal opportunity, and fair wages for workers with disabilities. Just two days after Labor Day, the timing of the event is perfect.

Not only are individuals with disabilities confronted with stereotypes and misconceptions about their abilities to function on the job, they are hampered by low pay. Restrictions associated with the Fair Labor Standards Act passed in 1938 provided a revolutionary civil rights protection — a minimum wage — but it also included an exemption allowing people with disabilities to be paid less than minimum wage.

This intent of the legislation was positive, as it was originally designed to persuade employers to hire people with disabilities and open up opportunities to work. Instead, people with disabilities were often employed in segregated workplaces, earning a sub-minimum wage. Eighty years later, the provision remains in effect.

“Bottom Dollar” tells stories of individuals with disabilities, some who have been held back by restrictions, and others who have found equal employment opportunities. Their message is clear:

disabled does not mean incompetent. When employers are willing to make reasonable accommodations for workers with disabilities, important work gets done and everyone benefits.

Two years ago, Murray-Calloway County Hospital Foundation headed an outreach project designed to provide opportunities in the arts for adults with disabilities and their caregivers. Through the hospital Foundation’s programming and partnerships with local artists and arts organizations, our community has made progress to ensure full access to people of all ages, whether their disabilities are temporary or permanent, visible or invisible.

Murray’s Playhouse in the Park also celebrates inclusion with the Penguin Project, a program that invites children and young adults with disabilities to perform modified versions of well-known Broadway musicals. Supported by on-stage mentors, families and other volunteers, the Playhouse is one of only seven in the country to be a part of this unique outreach effort. The curtain goes up on this year’s run of “Shrek, Junior” September 20-30.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) had been in effect since 1990. Now, almost thirty years old, the ADA is still in the process of being fully implemented. The screening and panel discussion of “Bottom Dollar” is a must-see for anyone who understands the value of continuing efforts for full implementation of the law. ASL interpreters will be provided.

Information about the video is available at www.rootedinrights.org

Information about individuals with disabilities working and receiving Social Security Income (SSI), visit www.kentuckyworks.org.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

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