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New congressional group pushes to expand job opportunities for people with disabilities

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Reposted from USA Today

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By Deborah Barfield Berry

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of lawmakers is pushing for more job opportunities for people with disabilities and aiming to change laws they say discourage them from entering the workforce full time.

“This is a way for us to help those that we think could do some really great work given the opportunity,’’ said Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., chairman of the House Administration Committee. “You want to make sure that the law is an encourager, not a discourager of special needs employment.’’

Harper and other lawmakers launched a new Congressional Working Group on Employment and Empowerment for the Intellectual Disability Community on Tuesday at the start of National Down Syndrome Awareness Month.

In addition to Harper, the bipartisan group includes Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, chairwoman the House Republican Conference, South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, the assistant Democratic leader, New York Rep. Joe Crowley, chairman of the Democratic Caucus, and Rep. Tony Cardenas, D-Calif.

“This bipartisan initiative will bring needed attention to the obstacles that Americans with disabilities face in their day-to-day lives,” Crowley said in a statement.

McMorris Rodgers, whose son, Cole, has Down syndrome, said the group’s goal is to help individuals with special needs succeed in the workplace.

“Many people with disabilities have dreams of working and living successful, independent lives, but too often our laws and regulations create barriers to entry,” McMorris Rodgers said in a statement.

McMorris Rodgers was also a vocal proponent of the ABLE (Achieving a Better Life Experience) Act signed into law in 2014. The law allows eligible people with disabilities to set up savings accounts, similar to college-savings programs known as 529 plans, while protecting their eligibility for Medicaid and other federal benefits.

Sara Weir, president of the National Down Syndrome Society, said the ABLE Act has generated 15,000 accounts with more than $30 million in assets in 28 programs.

“The next frontier is employment,” she said.

Weir said her group is working with lawmakers to craft legislation that would eliminate or change outdated laws that have income limitations for people with disabilities. She said individuals can only earn about $16,000 a year before federal disability benefits are in jeopardy.

“There are income limitations on Medicaid and Social Security that prevent people with Down syndrome from having full-time careers,” she said.

Some of the laws date back to the 1930s and 1960s when individuals with Down syndrome were often institutionalized and didn’t live long, Weir said.

“We want all of our individuals with Down syndrome not to just have job opportunities, but have the right to pursue a meaningful career,” she said.

While there are some federal efforts underway to open more doors to people with special needs, Harper said it’s important to get the private sector more involved.

“This is a way to look at what laws are in place, what needs to be modified, what maybe encourages employers to look at those opportunities in hiring someone with those special needs as they go forward,” he said.

Harper hosts advocates at the Capitol each March to support their push for more research money for Fragile X syndrome, a genetic condition that affects his son, Livingston. He also started a congressional internship program on the Capitol Hill for people with disabilities.

Harper said the House Administration Committee recently hired a graduate of the internship program to work full time in the office.

“We have an opportunity where lots of offices can do that,’’ he said. “It’s just one part of the puzzle.’’