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Independence for disabled workers: MN agency head touts new initiative

Jeff Gruenwald, owner of GreenForest Recycling Resources (left), and Donny O’Brien, Department of Human Services vocational program client and GreenForest employee, give state Department of Human Services Commissioner Emily Piper a tour Wednesday, Sept. 13, of the company at the Brainerd Industrial Center in Brainerd. Steve Kohls / Forum News Service

BRAINERD, Minn. — Minnesota Department of Human Services Commissioner Emily Piper visited Brainerd Wednesday, Sept. 13, to tout reforms to the state's program for disabled workers.

A Star Tribune expose in 2015 detailed how the existing DHS program at the time was critically flawed, boxing disabled people into demeaning jobs for less than minimum wage through the controversial "sheltered workshop" model many other states had already done away with.

Brainerd is the tip of the spear for the agency's reform to get more individualized work for disabled people within the community rather than being segregated. Three old-model facilities were closed in Brainerd and Baxter, and one is opening in accordance with the new VOICE initiative, or Vocational Opportunities and Individualized Community Employment.

VOICE began Dec. 5 and is one of 17 local programs statewide that DHS is using to move toward disabled integration with the community through vocational work.

VOICE is a model to be replicated, Piper said.

"It really should be an inspiration for the rest of Minnesota, particularly greater Minnesota, where we've got a lot of folks who are working in sub-minimum wage jobs and who maybe could, if they had the opportunity to have supportive employment services, to go and work in an integrated setting, " Piper said.

Piper made the remarks after touring GreenForest Recycling Resources, a paper- and plastic-wrapping recycling facility in the Brainerd Industrial Center. Owner Jeff Grunenwald commended Donny O'Brien, an employee with epilepsy hired through the program. O'Brien makes a minimum wage of $9.50 an hour baling plastic sheets alongside abled people. Grunenwald said O'Brien is a dedicated and proficient worker, while O'Brien called his work at GreenForest "the best job ever."

Grunenwald said the paperwork in hiring O'Brien was so streamlined that he wished it was the same for hiring his regular staff members.

Not every voice in the disabilities debate is in favor of the new trend. Baxter City Council member Steve Barrows advocates for the much-maligned sheltered workshop model. His own son, who is epileptic and cognitively impaired, can't function at the level necessary for an integration program like VOICE, Barrows said.

He's not against high-function disabled people being integrated into the community—but attention should be paid to the resulting cost to people who are low-function. An overemphasis on high-functioning disabled people may consign people like his son to spend their days staring at a wall, he said.

"The problem is, you only get so much in a budget," Barrows said. "To provide those dollars for (high functioning people), they've taken away dollars for low-functioning individuals with developmental disabilities."