ELIZABETH, NJ — March is Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month, and members of the New American Movement for People with Disabilities, NAM, are adamant proponents of inclusion. In NAM’s crusade to help people with disabilities live without limitations, the group is involved in pending legislation in Trenton, voter registration, the 2020 census and general rights advocacy.
NAM is a self-advocacy group within Community Access Unlimited, a Union County–based, statewide nonprofit organization that strives to integrate people with disabilities and at-risk youth into the general community through comprehensive support.
“We are a nonprofit that serves people with disabilities and at-risk youth across New Jersey,” CAU Director of Advocacy Rebecca Kasen told LocalSource on March 19. “Our service providers include adults, children with disabilities, as well as at-risk youth. We offer employment services, financial money management, respite, support coordination, residential services — almost any service available.”
Exemplifying its mission of inclusion, Community Access Unlimited strives for equal employment opportunities for those with disabilities. CAU offers employment programs to help prepare for such opportunities.
“We offer preemployment programs,” Kasen said. “In the community, there is competitive support. We have one–to-one staff while they work with individuals and everything in between. Our staff assists the disabled so they can compete in the workforce.”
Giving a voice to individuals who historically hold little power in society, Community Access Unlimited helps those they serve advocate for themselves.
“Our members are there even as advocates,” Kasen said. “We have our Helping Hands group, which focuses on individual life skills. We have our New American Movement group, which focuses on regulation and legislation and how it impacts people with disabilities. We have Jump Start, which focuses on paying members to go train people with a disability. The MAC and MAC Attack groups are for at-risk youth, which focuses on policies and best practices.”
Community Access Unlimited has been around for a long time. Under the umbrella of the Association for the Advancement of the Mentally Handicapped, the nonprofit organization was founded by Executive Director Sidney Blanchard with a $9,000 grant to move 20 individuals with developmental disabilities from state institutions and place them into the community.
“Founded in 1979, we are going on our 41st year,” Kasen said. “We started with just taking people out of institutions who didn’t want to live in a developmental center any longer. We went from a small organization to one of the largest service providers in Union County.
“We serve all ages,” she added. “The majority of individuals are 21 and over. Interns of at-risk youth programs are teens up to age 22.”
As March is Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month, CAU is doubly focused on awareness for inclusion of people with developmental disabilities in all areas of community life, as well as the barriers that people with disabilities still sometimes face in connecting to the communities in which they live.
“Every day is awareness day,” Kasen said. “We are treating March as such. It’s time to embrace everyone with a disability. We’d like to increase media presence via social media, via Skype, as well as increasing our presence through anyone that can get the word out.”
Community Access Unlimited is completely committed to the people it serves, fighting a never-ending battle for equality. Kasen said people with disabilities can become more included in their communities if employers make more of an effort to hire people with disabilities.
“We just want everyone to include people with disabilities. You’d be surprised with how much people with disabilities can contribute,” Kasen said.
NAM’s members are certainly proving what people with disabilities can do. NAM member Annie Sims recently traveled to Trenton to testify at a hearing on a proposed Senate bill to raise the wage rate of direct-service professionals who support people with disabilities. While she was unable to make an appearance at the hearing, she was able to speak directly to Senate President Stephen Sweeney about her belief that the bill needs to be expanded to cover all state-funded workers supporting people with disabilities.
Sims said she has direct-care staff working with her only a few hours a week, but she uses a lot of support from other staff at CAU every day.
“The Facilities Department takes care of my apartment. My employment support counselor and my supervisors make sure I have what I need to do my two jobs,” Sims said in a press release. “None of these people are considered direct-service professionals but if any of them left to make more money, I would not have everything I need.”
According to Kasen, CAU is approaching lawmakers this year to ask for increased funding.
“The current funding structure doesn’t anticipate being home all day,” Kasen said. “Our staff members have been amazing and we’re asking Medicaid for additional funding. The current Medicaid reimbursement rates are not enough to pay competitive wages for this important work, so we’re very excited Gov. Murphy proposed $42 million into the state budget.”
Murphy’s proposed state budget would put $42 million toward increasing wages for direct-support professionals working with people with disabilities. When asked why funding is so important, Kasen said the staff deserves to make a living wage.
“The current average wage is $12 an hour,” Kasen said. “The staff does so much. They’re responsible for the lives of people with disabilities, so they deserve competitive wages. We’d like to pay them more, because they deserve more.”
According to Kasen, CAU has come a long way since it first began in 1979. “The first round of people we took was less than 10 people,” Kasen said. “Now, we’ve expanded our services and helped thousands of people we’ve provided different levels of support to. We’ve had people who were living in institutions their whole lives as a child. When they come to Community Access Unlimited, we help them get set up to live in an apartment or house and get their jobs. They’re utilizing the support that we give them.”
In addition to helping its clients better integrate into the community, CAU is working on helping its clients contribute their voices to the nation’s democratic process.
“We’re always encouraging members to vote,” Kasen said. “We have a better percentage of members voting then the general population does. We encourage voting without encouraging to vote for a particular candidate. We do articles for our various newsletters; we drive people to the polls; we help people register by mail — whatever we can do to get our members to vote.”
CAU is also pushing participation in the 2020 census, as people with disabilities are historically undercounted, Kasen said.
“There are many reasons why we make it a priority that everyone is counted,” Kasen said. “Funding is tied to the census, so basically we send email blasts and videos to remind people to fill out the census form in the mail, as well as if anyone needs assistance reading the form or filling it out, our staff is there to help.”
Currently, the COVID-19 pandemic is a top priority at CAU, which is working to keep the virus at bay among its population.
“All hands are on deck,” Kasen said. “All staff members who are properly trained are there to assist our staff now. We highly discourage people from leaving other than for necessities. We have a website to provide local and national information about COVID-19. We have all sorts of creative, in-home activities to keep them occupied so no one is bored. We do competitions, and every day is a different, fun competition. For anyone who wins, the prize is dinner from the local businesses.
“Everyone is asked to wash their hands,” Kasen said. “We’re ordering extra cleaning supplies and we’ve educated members on cleaning. We are installing webcams to use Skype, WhatsApp and FaceTime to talk to loved ones. We are not allowing visitors right now, but we want to make sure everyone interacts with loved ones, activity groups, as well as recreation.”
According to Kasen, caring for those with disabilities and integrating them into society is a civil rights movement.
“Disability rights are part of the civil rights umbrella,” she said. “As a civil rights advocate, it’s important to me that no group is left out. I really believe in civil rights. It’s important to me.”