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G.G. Perez is more than her disabilities: She is learning how to tell her story

Post-Bulletin - 5/7/2024

May 7—ROCHESTER — When G.G. Perez was looking for a job, her mom, Elizabeth Post, recalls how anxious and stressful the time was.

Perez, who has a cognitive disability and ADHD, had never held a job before. During her first job interview, Perez walked behind the desk of the manager, who became uncomfortable and ended the interview. In her second interview, her mom went with her and Perez did a "really good job" and was hired as a courtesy clerk at a local HyVee grocery store.

To help her with the work, Perez was assigned a job coach, paid for through the Minnesota Vocational Rehabilitation Services. Sometimes, the coach helped with the little things. To help clock in and out of work, Perez kept her punch card number in her wallet so she could access it at the beginning and end of each shift and not have to remember it.

The job coach also talked with the manager to determine areas Perez needed to work on. At the coach's recommendation, Perez took online courses to reinforce how to bag groceries. Heavy things on the bottom, light stuff on top. Keep the meat separate from the vegetables. Ask customers if they want the milk in a separate bag.

But eventually, the work support Perez received disappeared when the funding for the coach ended. Perez has kept her job, but like a tightrope walker without a net, "it's been a challenge," Post said.

"It takes a lot of time to teach her a new job. So, she's gonna always need support in that area," Post said. "I'm very proud of her for all the hard work she's done."

This is one part of Perez's story. Perez is also close to completing an advocacy training program called Partners in Policymaking that teaches participants how to tell their story, and how to be better advocates for people with disabilities. Both parents of children with disabilities and people with disabilities take the eight-month program.

Since it offered its first class in 1987, it has taught more than 1,200 Minnesota self-advocates and parents.

The program covers a lot of ground: the history of disability and discrimination, self-advocacy movements, inclusive education, supported living and employment. A major focus of the program is teaching people to tell their stories in a way that influences elected officials and other policymakers to advance legislation.

"It's similar to the elevator speech idea where you only have a few minutes. So you have to summarize your story to make it interesting — and to connect it to the topic you're talking about," said Colleen Wieck, executive director of the MinnesotaGovernor's Council on Developmental Disabilities.

Post said her daughter works on developing independent living skills at the Rochester Academy for Independent Living Skills (RAIL program) in Rochester Public Schools. Her daughter tries hard, but progress at times can be slow and incremental. She saw Partners in Policymaking as a way to boost her daughter's self-confidence, independence and mental health. She signed up her daughter and attended herself as her direct support staff.

"She's becoming a young adult and she's 21 now. There's a lot of things she can do. She has lots of talents. She's a great dishwasher, she bags groceries and she's great with customers. But it's like, how do I market those skills to potential employers? Who's gonna listen to us? Who's gonna open doors for her," Post said.

"Partners in Policymaking taught us some of the things I can do to support her, but she can do herself" Post added.

It's been "life-changing," Post said.

Olmsted County Commissioner Sheila Kiscaden has been a program instructor for Partners in Policymaking for several years. A former state legislator, Kiscaden has organized mock-legislative hearings in class to give participants practice in approaching legislators and telling their stories.

"It helps people realize that they have power, that their life experience is relevant for policymaking at the local level, at the state level," Kiscaden said.

Kiscaden said Minnesota offers more services for people with disabilities than almost any other state, and one reason for that distinction is its strong parent and disability advocates.

Kiscaden has also seen firsthand how the testimony of disability advocates can affect and move legislators. She recalls attending a legislative hearing when a family at the committee table was telling legislators how a proposal would favorably impact their lives. A staunch conservative legislator sitting next to Kiscaden leaned over and said, "I like it when real people come and talk to us." He ended up voting for the bill.

Last March, Perez, Post and their class traveled to St. Paul for Disability Services Day at the Capitol. It's a day of advocacy for people with disabilities. Perez had practiced lobbying legislators in the class. She had also worked out a script in advance. She met with Sen. Liz Bolden (DFL-Rochester) and told her how key job coaches and direct support staff are critical to her success at work.

"She was supportive," Post said.

Post said that people with disabilities suffer from high rates of underemployment or unemployment. That's a shame because with the labor market so tight, people with disabilities are a labor resource that hasn't been fully tapped by employers. Post believes a day is coming when people with disabilities will be more integrated in the labor force, just like they are in education.

"Hey, you're looking for workers that are reliable, that can do specific tasks. There's this population that, you know, can provide those," Post said.

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