Minnesota is working on plans to propel more adults with special needs into the mainstream workforce, and some local advocates say they are apprehensive about how that might play out.

Last year, state lawmakers approved changes intended to help disabled adults who want to work in jobs other than state-supported day programs or sheltered workshops. About half of those with disabilities say they want to have a job, said the Minnesota Department of Human Services.

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"This is a really positive moment in terms of services for people with disabilities," said assistant commissioner Claire Wilson. "Transforming employment services means more options for more people."

However, parents such as Karen Schwieso of Alexandria, whose son Derek, 27, has moderate mental retardation, say they fear that the roll-out of the changes could spell the loss of places like the Alexandria Opportunities Center, which employs disabled adults.

Derek works at center, doing things such as packaging bags of chips. He does well there, she said, and he would not thrive in a competitive work environment.

"He doesn't read or write but he loves to go there and visit with his friends and still gets a paycheck," she said. "As parents we know he's in a safe environment and he's getting his needs met."

Derek is about one of 10,500 Minnesotans enrolled in the state's workforce program for disabled adults. Wilson says that the changes will not force workers to move into a mainstream job, simply give them the option of exploring other possibilities. If they chose to work elsewhere, they could get training and then on-the-job support as necessary. The changes would also be available to all workers with disabilities, not just those in a day program or sheltered workshop.

Schwieso said she believes Wilson and others leading the department have good intentions.

"My concern is that I really hope that trickles down to my son's level and that it doesn't get forgotten in there," she said. "We keep our fingers crossed. I feel we really can't back down."

Schwieso isn't alone in her concern. Mike Burke, executive director of the center where her son works, said he is concerned that mainstreaming disabled adults into the workforce will erode funding and support for sheltered programs like the Alexandria Opportunities Center.

"The plans haven't been spelled out all that well," he said. "We're not opposing that we're going to add new services. ... We don't want to completely throw away what we've done because we have value."

The Alexandria center employs 107 disabled adults, of which 10 to 12 work in the community, at places such as fast-food restaurants and schools. It also employs 30 adults who train the workers. It contracts with manufacturers such as 3M and Shearer's in Perham to do simple assembly and packaging.

Changes could be implemented as early as July 1, he said, adding that they'll probably come later in the fall. Now is the time to contact state officials, he said.

"We need to influence them between now and then to make sure parents and their children are represented," he said.

Adults with special needs will still have the ability to work in day programs or sheltered settings, Wilson said.

"People will still have the choice to work or participate in day services or shelter workshop," she said. "But it is a significant shift in terms of the way employment services are provided in this state."

She added, "We do recognize that there is some worry within the provider and the family community just as there is any time there is a significant shift or reform in the way that we approach supporting people with disabilities."

The state is working closely with providers like the Alexandria Opportunities Center and is committed to maintaining stability during the transition, she said. She compared the changes to the way the system changed to move disabled people out of institutions and into homes in the community.

"This is following a national trend in assuring that people with disabilities who can and want to work are supported to do so competitively," she said. "Really, it's good for those people who access that employment. It can be a way out of poverty, an opportunity to earn livable wages."


Karen Schwieso has invited Mike Burke, director of the Alexandria Opportunities Center, to speak to advocates and parents and other caregivers of adults with special needs at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 27, at the center at 107 Donna Ave. in Alexandria.

Burke will talk about the state's proposed changes for how adults with disabilities participate in the workforce.

For more information, call Schwieso at 712-269-7165.