By Nick Tabor, New Era Senior Staff Writer
Compared to other states, Kentucky has a poor record of helping the mentally disabled find regular jobs and build stable romantic relationships. The University of Kentucky established this in a survey.
The state wants improvement. But it has people concerned that disabled members of their families will get pushed into jobs they’re not ready for or will be left with no options.
On Monday night, two representatives of the state came to speak at the Pennyroyal Mental Health Center. They wanted to allay the concerns of any locals whose relatives work at Trace Industries, a sheltered jobs program the Pennyroyal Center runs.
“There’s no intention of closing or shutting down a provider unless there’s some issue going on,” said Alice Blackwell, assistant director of Kentucky’s division of developmental and intellectual disabilities. She was addressing about a dozen community members, and Pennyroyal Center staff sat among them.
Trace falls under the category of sheltered workshops, though the Pennyroyal Center prefers terms like “employment opportunity,” Director David Ptaszek said.
Its 150 or so employees build tables for the U.S. Army, clean totes for Douglas Autotech, cut wood for Plymouth and perform many other manual labor tasks, according to its website. Everyone gets a job matched to his or her abilities. Once Trace had an employee who could only press a button, and it found work for her, Ptaszek said. The company tries to help employees move up to more and more complex tasks, and ultimately to enter the outside workforce, even if this requires extra training from their employers.
They receive paychecks from Trace, but the minimum wage law doesn’t apply to them.
Trace depends on Medicaid funding to operate. In August, the state proposed cutting these funds, on the grounds that employees at Trace and similar programs around the state — of which there are roughly 50 — should be seeking regular community jobs.
Had the state done this, Trace would have shut down, Ptaszek said.
Blackwell handed out copies on Monday of a revised version of the regulation changes, and this version evidently won’t hurt Trace’s funding. Ptaszek said it set his mind at ease — and apparently the minds of other attendees too.
“I think there was some relief tonight,” he said.
Not everyone in the crowd Monday night came with questions about Trace. The changes will affect many programs for the mentally disabled, and some will affect the Pennyroyal Center in other ways.
For instance, the center won’t be able to provide case management to the clients who are taking advantage of its other services. This creates a conflict of interest, and Kentucky is one of the only states that hasn’t already banned it, Blackwell said.
However, clients who already have a longstanding relationship will be able to get exceptions, she said. So the policy will take hold steadily, over a period of years.
Ptaszek said new clients won’t have any trouble finding case management elsewhere in town.
As for the big picture, these regulation changes should nudge the mentally disabled and their families toward fuller community engagement, Blackwell said. There will be additional resources, including staff, to the disabled get involved in social activities. This could mean pairing someone with a film club and arranging transportation, for instance, said Julie Neal, quality administration supervisor for Blackwell’s department.
Blackwell answered general questions about transportation, case management and other services. But it was clear that each family would need to consult individually with the Pennyroyal Center or someone else to determine how the changes will affect their own situations.
The changes will take effect sometime after Jan. 1, but it’s not clear exactly when, Blackwell said.