Kelly PeLong is the executive director of the Disability Network of Mid-Michigan (DNMM). She has been in this role for two and a half years and has been with the company for 26 years, mainly in management. PeLong holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Central Michigan University and is a licensed social worker. She is also a certified HR specialist. PeLong has been using a wheelchair since she was eight or nine years old.
The headquarters of the Disability Network is in Midland. They serve 12 counties and have branch offices in Saginaw, Bay City, and Gratiot Counties. Its 52 employees provide PR work, lobbying, information and recommendations to 9,000 people annually. The Disability Network also provides continued support to an additional 300 people on a monthly, weekly and sometimes daily basis.
Disability Network Mid-Michigan banner displayed at the ADA celebration.
The organization serves all people with a disability, primarily people with a developmental or mental disability. The main sources of funding for the DNMM come from the state’s independent living budget, the federal government, fees for service agreements with Community Mental Health and Michigan Rehabilitation Services, the United Way, and fundraisers. The DNMM is 1 in 15 in Michigan.
This week the Disability Network celebrated the 31st anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in all public and private places that are open to the public. The law aims to ensure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as the rest of the population.
Q: What have been the achievements of the ADA so far?
A: Accessibility is now more of a priority in the design phase of buildings and streetscapes; Planners call disability organizations for ideas. There has been a lot of discussion about the abolition of the minimum wage for people with disabilities – then people will essentially be paid according to a piece wage and not according to the value of their work.
The ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities.Advances in Technology: Providing people with new ways to contribute and communicate in their communities. We want to be a voice at the table and we have to be a voice at the table. There are these laws now to support our civil rights. People are beginning to realize that disabilities are part of everyday life. It is not a question of whether you have a disability, but when, because people are living longer and aging locally.
Q: What other challenges do people with disabilities face?
A: One in five people with a disability is twice as likely to be unemployed. If you consider that the ADA was signed 31 years ago, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is still around 70%. Around 7% of those inactive are actively looking for work.
Q: There have been reports that employers are unable to fill positions at many companies, nonprofits, and government agencies. Why should employers consider people with disabilities?
A: 2020 taught us that we can be creative in our work areas. People with disabilities represent an untapped talent pool. For example, if employers are concerned with structuring job descriptions that require one person to do all of these tasks, you should break those positions down into different tasks that different people can do.
Kelly PeLong at the ADA 31st Anniversary Celebration in Auburn.
Transport doesn’t have to be an obstacle. If a remote working environment is possible, use the technology we used over the last year to give these people an edge too.
I also think that some of the social justice issues have opened the door to more conversations about inclusion and diversity, and it’s not just about race. Recent studies show that companies that place greater emphasis on hiring people with disabilities have improved their source of income. One study says an increase of up to 28%. It allowed them to be more creative.
Q: What is your takeaway?
A: People with disabilities have something to offer their community. Your employers can feel innovative. We always strive to be innovative.
Banner featuring the 31st Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act
One of the things we’ve been focusing on lately is hearing from people who encounter barriers to accessibility. Those in charge don’t think about that. They say that people with disabilities do not come (to their event / location). We have to be where everyone else is. We want everything to be welcoming, accessible and inclusive for everyone. There are many disabilities that you will not see; some are hidden. Making it available to everyone makes things better for all of us.