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Workplaces that train and hire employees with disabilities worry about possible rule changes

Maureen McCollum, Wisconsin Public Radio

Changes could be on the horizon for workers with disabilities as the state and various organizations wait for new rules at certain worksites.

Riverfront Inc. is one of many Wisconsin organizations that receive federal and state funding to help employ workers with disabilities. Most workers receive job training and are placed within businesses in the community, but there are some workers with severe disabilities that are employed at the Riverfront’s workshops.

At the company’s La Crosse facility, workers assemble DNA kits, handle mailings, or strip wires.

The company’s president and CEO Mary Kessens has concerns that these center-based workshops could close, because some say segregating workers with disabilities is discriminatory. Kessens said having a variety of workplaces is necessary.

“There is a population of people with disabilities, sometimes with profound disabilities, who potentially have serious behavior issues, who may need toileting or support in eating, that are best served in center-based employment,” said Kessens.

The worry about closures stems from a lack of clarity from the federal government and the state. Medicaid rules regarding employment are changing, but Wisconsin Department of Health Services Secretary Kitty Rhoades said they don’t know what those changes are yet. She said centers may have to shift towards just training workers.

Rhoades said she wants workers to choose to be employed in the community.

“If the answer is yes, if it takes me five years to learn how to wipe off a table, so be it,” she said. “As long as the goal is, I’m eventually going to work in the community. If you get in the community and it doesn’t work out, that means we put you in the wrong place.”

DHS is accepting comments on the issue until Sept. 2.

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