Florida Agency for Persons with Disabilities

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12 Businesses Honored as Exceptional Employers

Agency for Persons with Disabilities (APD), Blind Services, and Vocational Rehabilitation recognized 12 businesses with an Exceptional Employer Award for hiring people with disabilities. The 17th annual celebration was held at the Florida Capitol on October 24 as part of recognizing October as Disability Employment Awareness Month as declared by Governor Ron DeSantis’ proclamation.

The Exceptional Employer Awards are presented to companies that exhibit a strong commitment to employing and retaining people with unique abilities. Event sponsors were the Able Trust and RESPECT of Florida.

The 12 award-winning businesses are:

Beck Automotive Group of Palatka
City of Cape Coral
Clearwater Marine Aquarium
Hilton Garden Inn Fort Walton Beach
Kohl’s Tallahassee
Lighthouse Works, Inc. of Orlando
Pinecrest Bakery of Miami
Pitney Bowes, Inc. of Jacksonville
Rise & Nye’s of Sarasota
Stenner Pump Company of Jacksonville
Winslow LifeRaft Company of Lake Suzy
Xtreme Action Park of Ft. Lauderdale

APD Director Barbara Palmer said, “We are so very excited to honor these outstanding companies for their commitment to employing a diverse workforce. These businesses know that individuals with unique abilities are some of the most reliable employees within their organization. A good return on investment is what hiring a person with a disability is—it just makes good business sense.”

“Under Governor DeSantis’ decisive leadership, we will continue to promote an economic environment that strengthens Florida businesses and fuels job creation for all Floridians,” said Secretary Dane Eagle of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO). “DEO is proud to support all Floridians in finding meaningful employment through great programs like the Florida Unique Abilities Partner Program. We are pleased to recognize businesses in our state that demonstrate their support and commitment to the independence of Floridians with unique abilities.”

“For 17 years, the Exceptional Employer Awards have been highlighting businesses that embrace inclusivity in their hiring practices,” said Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Director Brent McNeal. “When people with disabilities participate in competitive, integrated employment we all win. Florida’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation has been connecting employers to qualified candidates of all abilities for over 90 years. We’re proud to participate in the awards ceremony again this year and are looking forward to celebrating these successful outcomes for our customers and Florida businesses.”

“We are pleased to celebrate the contributions of these exemplary employers,” said Division of Blind Services Director Robert Doyle. “They continually open the workforce door wider for those with blindness, visual impairments, and other disabilities and intentionally provide opportunities for persons with disabilities to excel.”

“The demand for skilled workers continues to grow in Florida, and we see even greater opportunities for employers to hire Floridians with disabilities, not just as a practical solution, but one that will strengthen Florida businesses,” said CareerSource Florida President and CEO Michelle Dennard. “CareerSource Florida commends businesses that recognize the value of disability workforce inclusion, as it is a brighter future for all when it includes employment for people with disabilities.”

strong>The Able Trust President and CEO Allison Chase said, “We at The Able Trust congratulate the 2022 Exceptional Employer Award recipients. These companies and individuals are leading the way in making Florida a more inclusive state for workers with disabilities.”

Speakers at the event included Piggly Wiggly of Quincy employee Brenton Pete, star graduate from Arc of the Bay Culinary Institute and Empowerment Café Chef Kate Stanford, and Live Better, Inc., President Patrick H. Martin who shared with the audience what having a job means to them.
Here is information on the 12 winning companies:Beck Automotive Group  
This auto dealership, located in Palatka, has a long history of hiring and supporting people with unique abilities. One employee with a disability recently retired after 40 years on the job. Another employee with unique abilities has been on the job more than 20 years. The car dealership is the host site for a Project Search class for adults with disabilities run by the Arc of Putnam County. Project Search is a nine-month training program to teach people with disabilities the skills needed to be successful in a work environment. Eight individuals with disabilities recently graduated from Project Search with three graduates being hired by Beck Automotive Group. Beck has agreed to be the host site for a second Project Search class. Beck prides itself on its welcoming culture and developing better leaders and managers. In addition to the Project Search participants, Beck has 10 more current employees with unique abilities.

City of Cape Coral
This city in Southwest Florida has been employing people with disabilities for 30 years. There are currently 48 people with unique abilities working for the City of Cape Coral in a variety of positions. One person works at Pops Café. About 40 individuals work in the recycling program and in the park maintenance program. For the recycling program, the workers travel around the city collecting the recycling from various buildings. The city wants its parks to be inviting to visitors, so these employees lay down mulch, ensure trails are clean and nice, and maintain all of the buildings. The city is also flexible in scheduling shifts to ensure its employees are able to access transportation services.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium
Many of us know about Winter the dolphin with a prosthetic tail that made the Clearwater Marine Aquarium home and was the subject of the popular movie featuring Harry Connick, Junior, called Dolphin Tale and has since passed away. Another dolphin named Hope, who was featured in Dolphin Tale 2, continues to bring thousands of people with disabilities to Clearwater to see and swim with her. The aquarium now has five dolphins with some type of disability. People with disabilities can identify with their struggles. The public can apply to interact with them as part of the aquarium’s CMA Inspires Program. The aquarium has four staff, two volunteers, and one intern with unique abilities. Over the past two years, more than 30 people with unique abilities have been a part of the aquarium’s staff.

Hilton Garden Inn Fort Walton Beach
This hotel has partnered with Vocational Rehabilitation since 2019 offering on-the-job training opportunities to young people. This employer hired five individuals when they completed the VR program, with two full-time employees continuing to be employed.
Additionally, they employ two more people with unique abilities. The hotel invites past VR participants back to work during the busy season since they already know the ropes. On August 11, the Hilton Garden Inn became the host site for Project Search in Okaloosa County with six students enrolled in the program. They are all having a blast learning about each other.

Kohl’s Tallahassee
This department store employs three people with unique abilities employed. One of them has worked at Kohl’s for more than two years. These employees are sales associates. They assist customers, fold merchandise, clean up dressing rooms, and return merchandise to the correct rack. Kohl’s truly values these individuals’ work ethic, dependability, and eagerness to learn. Their veteran employee even trains new hires with disabilities, giving her a sense of leadership.

Lighthouse Works, Inc. of Orlando
This organization, located in Orlando, has a long history of serving the blind and those with low vision. They operate several call centers where many of the employees are visually impaired.
180 of the 428 people employed by Lighthouse Works have some type of disability. This employer ensures all computers are accessible for someone with a visual disability. JAWS and ZoomText are installed on machines and additional software may be installed to access the necessary platforms or systems for the job. Their offices offer talking vending machines, high-contrast walls, and tactile maps. Individuals are regularly promoted from within, with 21 leaders within the organization having some type of disability.

Pinecrest Bakery of Miami
This Latin inspired delicious bakery has 20 locations in Dade and Monroe counties. There are eight individuals with unique abilities employed at the various bakery locations and headquarters.
These employees have a variety of jobs. Some make party trays, sandwiches, and cut Cuban bread for toast then butter it for customers. One worker is in the manufacturing department, one person cleans up, and another employee works in the bread department making bread. All of them are busy contributing to the success of the bakery. The company owner has embraced inclusion and ensured a cultural change from the top down.
Bakery employees have demonstrated and been exemplary natural supports for employees with unique abilities.

Pitney Bowes, Inc. of Jacksonville
This organization continues to step up its efforts to hire people with disabilities. Pitney Bowes has eight individuals working at its distribution and sorting center in Jacksonville, which is 10 percent of its workforce. This business has been focused on employing people with unique abilities since 2015. At one point 25 percent of its workforce were individuals with disabilities. This business is opening a facility in Orlando and plans to continue hiring applicants with disabilities as an integral part of the workforce. Pitney Bowes employees without disabilities say they are inspired and motivated by those with disabilities.

Rise & Nye’s of Sarasota
This coffee shop, bakery, and ice cream parlor is located in Sarasota and is committed to hiring lots of people with unique abilities. Rise and Nye’s has 40 employees, with 35 having significant disabilities. This business was opened in 2020 by longtime advocate Beaver Shriver, who is related by marriage to the founder of Special Olympics, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, and his business partner. Rise and Nye’s employees with unique abilities make coffee and baked goods, run the cash register, serve ice cream, clean up, train new employees, and whatever else is needed. There are plans to start a food truck, allowing more people with disabilities to have a job and earn a paycheck.

Stenner Pump Company
This Jacksonville business has a long-standing relationship with Pine Castle which provides services to people with disabilities. This company has been employing individuals with unique abilities for more than 22 years and has strengthened that focus over the past seven years. Through an arrangement with Pine Castle, Stenner Pump Company currently employs 10 people to assemble parts. The company also has one fulltime employee with disabilities onsite. Stenner Pump Company president says we gain more than we give when we hire individuals with disabilities.

Winslow LifeRaft Company of Lake Suzy
This business, located in Southwest Florida, has a strong partnership with Vocational Rehabilitation (VR). Winslow LifeRaft Company has four people with disabilities currently in their workforce. Over the past four years, more than 17 individuals have worked at the factory. Three VR customers are participating in their on-the-job training program. Winslow LifeRaft employees help these trainees learn the soft skills needed in the working world. They provide coaching to the individuals to help them be successful in the workplace. After completing the training program, these trainees are able to secure permanent positions.
This company has duplicated the on-the-job training program at another factory in Indiana and is piloting the program at its Colorado Springs facility. Company leadership is very supportive of hiring individuals with unique abilities because they have proven to be responsible, reliable, and hard-working employees.

Xtreme Action Park of Ft. Lauderdale
Located in Fort Lauderdale, Xtreme Action Park is the largest indoor entertainment venue in Florida with go kart racing, bowling, a ropes course, a trampoline park, roller skating, laser tag, escape rooms, and more. Xtreme Action Park currently employs nine individuals with unique abilities. Over the years, they have partnered with Vocational Rehabilitation to hire many qualified applicants. These employees are doing a variety of tasks. The company tries to match an individual’s strengths with the task and put them in the best position to succeed. Xtreme Action Park allows employees extra time to complete tasks and a flexible work schedule due to transportation issues. They also provide a specific parking area for these employees to use. This business has shown patience, support, understanding, flexibility, and friendship to all of its employees.

You may watch the entire ceremony here.

Click Here to view the photo gallery from the event.


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Post-Hurricane Recovery and Assistance

In June, we shared with you tips and tools to prepare for Florida Hurricane Season. But what do you do after the hurricane has passed? Below you will find resources to help you and your family in recovery efforts.

Agency for Persons with Disabilities (APD) – APD has a Recovery Toolkit available on their website that includes resource links across the state, press releases, and more. The toolkit can be found at https://apd.myflorida.com/news/toolkit.htm

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) – FEMA will set up temporary Disaster Recovery Centers (DRCs) after a disaster to provide support to impacted areas and communities. These offices may assist with the application process, answer questions about your application, and help you submit information to FEMA. You can also review their Frequently Asked Questions About Disasters page for more details about assistance, to locate a recovery center, and more at https://www.fema.gov/disaster/recover/faq or text DRC and a ZIP Code to 4FEMA (43362). You can also call the FEMA helpline at 1-800-621-3362.

Division of Emergency Management (DEM) – Through the State Emergency Response Team (SERT), DEM maintains emergency information for disasters. It includes statewide information such as open shelters (including special needs shelters), evacuation orders, school closures, and much more. Information can be found at https://www.floridadisaster.org/info/

Emergency Management Websites by County – To find your local emergency management website, please visit https://feaweb.org/member-center/hurricane-resources/#emergmgmtbycounty

American Red Cross – The American Red Cross offers many forms of assistance and relief after a disaster. They hand out food and water, provide emergency shelters, assist with medical care, and much more. For information and to find your local Red Cross, please visit https://www.redcross.org/get-help.html

Florida 511 – This can be used to get real-time traffic information. You can download the app or visit https://fl511.com/

7-Dippity – This organization provides a free download of After The Storm: A Guide to Help Children Cope with the Psychological Effects of a Hurricane. This is available in both English and Spanish. https://7-dippity.com/after-the-storm/

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Direct Support Professional Recognition Week

This year Direct Support Professional Recognition Week will be celebrated September 11-17. Direct Support Professionals (DSPs) provide direct care to some of our most vulnerable citizens, individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

DSPs work specifically with individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). A DSP is someone who not only helps the individual perform tasks, but teaches them to perform it on their own. The DSPs assist the client with a variety of tasks, such as cooking and cleaning, keeping a safe living space, medication administration, and much more. Daily responsibilities for DSPs vary depending on the needs of the client, so it is important that a DSP be flexible and well rounded.

DSPs provide a vital service to some of Florida’s most vulnerable. In June 2022, Florida Governor DeSantis signed the Freedom First budget for Fiscal Year 2022-2023. With the support of Governor DeSantis and the Florida Legislature, DSPs received a pay increase to $15 per hour to be effective no later than October 1.

APD Director Barbara Palmer said, “APD is excited to announce these record high rates for our vital service providers. We appreciate Governor DeSantis’ commitment in supporting people with disabilities and their service providers. These rate increases for our valued Direct Support Professionals will help them with the recent increases in the cost of living and reward them for their excellent care to Floridians with disabilities.”

We hope you join us in celebrating DSPs this September, but we also want to encourage you to celebrate them each and every day. Reach out to a DSP in your life and tell them you support them, let them know they are valued, and let them know their work matters to so many.

To watch a video message from APD Director Palmer to our DSPs, follow this link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YeRML5rPwiY

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Tacachale – Celebrating 100 Years of Serving Florida’s Most Vulnerable

On November 1, 1921, Florida opened the doors to its first community facility for Floridians with developmental disabilities in Gainesville. Originally called The Florida Farm Colony, the facility boasted three buildings on a 4,000-acre campus, 3,000 of which were donated by the citizens of Alachua County.

The Florida Farm Colony had 240 residents by the end of 1921, with most being children. The farm had originally hoped to be self-sustaining, with residents working in capacities such sewing, agricultural work, serving food, and other tasks. Because many of the residents were unable to work, the focus of the farm changed. In 1957, The Florida Farm Colony’s name was changed to Sunland Training Center of Gainesville, reflecting the desire to provide more educational opportunities for its residents.

Between 1947 and 1961 the farm expanded their facilities, with the number of residents reaching more than 2,000 individuals, including many children. The needs, interests, and activities of the residents of Sunland changed. The facility’s focus was on providing meaningful life experiences, such as therapy, recreational activities, and paying jobs. Residents enjoyed activities such as picnics, swimming, field trips, and arts and crafts. There were also well-established Cub Scout, Boy Scout, and Explorer programs.

Five additional Sunland Centers opened throughout the state between 1960 and 1967. However, as community care centers became more common and available to those in need, four of the five additional centers closed throughout the 1980s. In 1990, the Gainesville center was renamed to Tacachale, a Timucuan word meaning lighting a new fire in times of transition. The facility added individualized supports for residents, such as person-centered planning, to help each resident achieve their goals and dreams. Person-centered planning focused on the gifts, talents, and skills of each resident.

Between 1989 and 2022, residents received dental care through a partnership with the University of Florida. Services were provided by Dr. Timothy Garvey at Tacachale’s on-site dental clinic. Over the course of his career, Dr. Garvey received the Dr. E.A. Cosby Community Service Award (2010), the Humanitarian Award – Florida Dental Health Foundation (2010), DentaQuest’s Health Equity Hero Award (2020), and many others for his work with individuals with disabilities. While at Tacachale, Dr. Garvey also provided services to individuals with developmental disabilities in the community. In honor of Dr. Garvey, the Tacachale clinic will be renamed The Dr. Timothy Garvey Dental Clinic.

Today, residents of Tacachale are provided with a variety of opportunities for community engagement and leisure activities, including Special Olympics, cultural events, crafts, and other activities. Those interested in earning a paycheck have many opportunities to do so, both on and off campus. Tacachale began partnering with ClosetMaid in the 1990s, providing work for residents to assemble brackets for storage systems. Residents currently assemble over 5 million brackets a year. Another vocational opportunity for residents is to work with Tacachale Recycling, where approximately 7,000 pounds of paper and cardboard are processed each week.

As of December 1, 2021, Tacachale had 268 residents in their care. Residents are cared for by a medical team consisting of physicians, advanced practice providers, and nurses, as well as long-term support staff who provide one on one services when needed.

Tacachale’s vision is to be a national leader in services to persons with intellectual disabilities and an excellent place to live and work is clear to anyone that enters the facility. Tachachale’s mission and vision to enhance the quality of life for its residents will continue being the fire that lights their way through the twists and turns of the future.

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Read Different: The Florida Braille and Talking Book Library Services

The Florida Division of Blind Services (DBS) helps blind and visually impaired individuals achieve their goals and live their lives with as much independence and self-direction as possible. The Bureau of Braille and Talking Books Library Services is one of many programs offered through DBS. The Library was established in 1950 and provides reading materials to Floridians who are unable to read standard print due to visual, physical, or reading disabilities. It is the largest of its kind in the U.S. and serves more than 31,647 Floridians, with annual loans of over 1.99 million items.

The Braille and Talking Books Library offers books and magazines in both Braille and recorded formats for individuals of all ages. It also provides access to NFB-NEWSLINE, a free audio news service offering access to more than 500 publications. Equipment needed for the services, such as digital players and accessories, is loaned to the customer by the Library. Materials and equipment are sent to the customer via postage-free mail. All Library services are provided at no cost to the customer. Books are also available for download through the Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) website using personal devices.

Read Different is a presentation from the Florida Division of Blind Services’ See Different Team. The presentation provides information on the benefits of joining the Florida Braille and Talking Book Library, a demonstration of available Library equipment, clarification on who qualifies, and much more. Click here to watch the presentation.

For more information about The Florida Braille and Talking Book Library, please visit their website at Braille and Talking Book Library – Blind Services (fldoe.org) or call  1-800-226-6075. To apply for Library services, click here.

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Preparing for Hurricane Season

The Florida Hurricane Season begins on June 1 and ends on November 30. The Agency for Persons with Disabilities (APD) has put together some resources and tips to help you and your family prepare for this holiday season.

  1. Determine if you live in a flood zone or evacuation zone. You can visit https://www.floridadisaster.org/knowyourzone to find out.
  2. Put together a Disaster Kit, update it annually, and keep it in a safe place. You should also pack a Go Kit to have ready in case you need to evacuate. The Go Kit should have supplies to last at least 72 hours. You can find a checklist of items needed for your Disaster Kit and Go Kit at https://www.floridadisaster.org/planprepare/hurricane-supply-checklist/
  3. Have a plan of where you will go if you must evacuate, e.g., the home of a friend or relative, or a hotel outside the evacuation area.
  4. Only evacuate if you have to.

The 2022 Disaster Preparedness Sales Tax Holiday will begin Saturday, May 28, and end on Friday, June 10. You will be able to purchase disaster preparedness supplies with no tax during this time. You can find a list of included items at https://floridarevenue.com/DisasterPrep/Pages/default.aspx.

Below are additional resources to help you and your family prepare for and stay safe this hurricane season.

APD’s Recovery Toolkit website https://apd.myflorida.com/news/toolkit.htm. This includes resource links to information about disaster preparedness, State and non-profit resources, etc. This site is updated regularly and specifically during major disasters affecting Florida.

Federal Emergency Management Agency websites https://www.ready.gov/disability and
www.fema.gov. These include additional information about disaster preparedness.

National Weather Service website https://www.weather.gov/. This includes information on current weather-related hazards.

Florida’s Division of Emergency Management website https://www.floridadisaster.org/. This includes information about preparedness, disability planning, county emergency management agencies, information about evacuation, weather terms, a planning tool to develop a disaster plan, and specific information for people with disabilities.

Florida Department of Health Special Needs Registry website https://snr.flhealthresponse.com/. Each county health department provides individuals the opportunity to register with their local emergency management agency to receive assistance during a disaster. The statewide registry provides first responders with valuable information to prepare for disasters or other emergencies. Completing the Florida Special Needs Registry does not automatically qualify the individual for a special needs shelter. Additional information will be provided by your local emergency management agency regarding evacuation and sheltering options available to you. For more information on your local options or about sheltering, transportation, and evacuation, please visit https://www.floridadisaster.org/Counties.

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Creating Inclusion Through Acceptance

We celebrate World and National Autism Awareness Month every April. World Autism Awareness Day is recognized on April 2. Started by the Autism Society in 1970, Autism Awareness Month aims to bring about understanding, inclusion, and empowerment of people on the autism spectrum. Autism acceptance encourages a world where every individual in the autism community has access to the support and resources needed when they need them.

“Autism Awareness Month is all about creating awareness, acceptance, and inclusion of individuals with this diagnosis. Autistic cases in the U.S. rose from 1 in 125 children in 2010 to 1 in 59 children in 2020,” said Agency for Persons with Disabilities Director Barbara Palmer. “Great strides have been made over the years to include individuals with autism in all walks of life.”

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental disability that can cause challenges with social, communication, and behavioral skills. In most cases, there are no physical traits related to a person with ASD, but the way a person with ASD communicates, interacts, behaves, and learns may vary compared to most others. The cognitive abilities of a person with ASD can range from gifted to severely intellectually disabled. While some individuals with ASD require a large amount of assistance, others can and do live a relatively normal life.

Individuals with ASD are often born with the disorder. Signs of ASD begin before 3 years of age and usually last throughout their life. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), symptoms of ASD can show as early as the first 12 months of life and sometimes as late as 24 months or more. Some children with ASD may develop new skills early but stop gaining new skills or lose already learned skills around 18 to 24 months of age. ASD is classified as one umbrella term with three different stages: autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder, and Asperger syndrome.

According to Autism Speaks, the following signs could be an indicator that your child may be at risk for ASD.

By 6 months

  • Few or no big smiles or other warm, joyful, and engaging expressions
  • Limited or no eye contact

By 9 months

  • Little or no back-and-forth sharing of sounds, smiles, or other facial expressions

By 12 months

  • Little or no babbling
  • Little or no back-and-forth gestures such as pointing, showing, reaching, or waving
  • Little or no response to name

By 16 months

  • Very few or no words

By 24 months

  • Very few or no meaningful, two-word phrases (not including imitating or repeating)

At any age

  • Loss of previously acquired speech, babbling, or social skills
  • Avoidance of eye contact
  • Persistent preference for solitude
  • Difficulty understanding other people’s feelings
  • Delayed language development
  • Persistent repetition of words or phrases (echolalia)
  • Resistance to minor changes in routine or surroundings
  • Restricted interests
  • Repetitive behaviors (flapping, rocking, spinning, etc.)
  • Unusual and intense reactions to sounds, smells, tastes, textures, lights, and/or colors

The causes of ASD are still unknown; however, researchers have learned there is likely a combination of genetic and nongenetic, or environmental, influences that play a factor. According to the CDC, ASD occurs in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. Factors like family income, lifestyle, or educational level do not affect a child’s risk of autism. ASD is found to be four times more common among boys than girls.

There is no cure for ASD, but research shows child development can improve using early intervention treatment services. These services can help with a child’s ability to learn crucial skills from birth to 3 years of age. Similar symptoms that appear in children on the spectrum may also exist in adults. Although treatment is usually recommended for children, adults with ASD may also find specific types of treatments and services to be helpful. It is important to recognize that treatment does not aim to cure ASD, instead, it helps individuals address and manage issues such as anxiety, depression, or rigid thinking. If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms related to ASD, consult a doctor or mental health professional for a formal autism evaluation. To learn more about National Autism Awareness Month and treatment options for autism symptoms in children and adults, visit the Autism Society’s Acceptance Page

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Governor Ron DeSantis has issued a proclamation recognizing March 30, 2021 as Developmental Disabilities Awareness Day in Florida. Thank you, Governor DeSantis, for supporting Floridians with developmental disabilities.  

WHEREAS, Florida is committed to empowering its residents to reach their full potential and lead healthy
lives; and

WHEREAS, more than 40 million Americans have developmental disabilities, and face unique challenges in
being able to live independently and work in our communities; and

WHEREAS, people born with developmental disabilities are represented in all communities across our
state; and

WHEREAS, the state of Florida supports more than 100,000 residents with developmental disabilities
through services provided by state programs including the Agency for Persons with Disabilities (APD),
Agency for Health Care Administration, Department of Health, and Department of Education’s Divisions of
Exceptional Student Education, Blind Services, and Vocational Rehabilitation, and by partner organizations
and thousands of private-sector and community providers; and

WHEREAS, Florida has made record investments to serve Floridians with unique abilities so they may
continue to live more independently and find great jobs; and

WHEREAS, the proposed 2021~22 Florida Leads Budget recommends continuing this investment to help
more Floridians with disabilities receive services and assistance; and

WHEREAS, the State of Florida works with dozens of partner organizations and thousands of private~sector
community providers to support those with developmental disabilities; and

WHEREAS, Developmental Disabilities Awareness Day is an opportunity to raise public awareness and
enhance the understanding of the issues affecting people with developmental disabilities.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, Ron DeSantis, Governor of the State of Florida, do hereby extend my support to all
observing March 30, 2021, as Developmental Disabilities Awareness Day in Florida.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my
hand and caused the Great Seal of the State of
Florida to be affixed at Tallahassee, the Capital,
this 30th day of March, in the year two thousand

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Six Exceptional Employers Honored

Agency for Persons with Disabilities (APD), Blind Services, and Vocational Rehabilitation recognized six businesses today with an Exceptional Employer Award. These companies from across the state were recognized for hiring people with disabilities with plaques made by people with disabilities. The 15th annual celebration was held virtually as part of recognizing October as Disability Employment Awareness Month.
The Exceptional Employer Awards are presented to companies that have a strong commitment to employing and retaining people with unique abilities. Event sponsors were The Able Trust and RESPECT of Florida.
The six award-winning businesses are:

  • Blaze Pizza Store 1064 of Tallahassee
  • Lee County Library System
  • Rita’s Italian Ice & Frozen Custard of Lake Buena Vista
  • The Florida Bar
  • Whataburger #55 of Ft. Walton Beach
  • Youth Co-Op, Inc. of Miami

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said, “I congratulate all the Exceptional Employer Award winners being honored today and thank you for leading the way on this important initiative. I look forward to seeing how these businesses and individuals continue to accomplish their goals while helping make our state an even better place to live, learn and work for people with unique abilities and all Floridians.”

APD Director Barbara Palmer said, “We are thrilled to honor these very deserving companies from around the state for their commitment to employing a diverse workforce. These companies know that individuals with special abilities are some of the most reliable employees within their organization. We want employers to know that hiring a person with a disability is good business.”

Dane Eagle, Executive Director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, said, “Jobs are important to all Floridians. We are therefore pleased to recognize businesses in our state that demonstrate their support and commitment to the independence of Floridians with unique abilities. Businesses in the Unique Abilities Partner Program see the importance of employing all Floridians so they can continue to strengthen their workforce, communities, and Florida’s economy.”

Director of the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Allison Flanagan said, “I am proud to honor the employers who are diversifying their workforce and looking beyond the disability. Individuals with disabilities are an integral part of an inclusive workforce while enhancing their local community.”

“For those of us at the Florida Division of Blind Services (DBS), National Disability Employment Awareness Month serves as a great opportunity to spotlight wonderful employers who recognize the many benefits of hiring disabled workers and the great work done by those who are blind or visually impaired. While we recognize the challenges faced by persons with disabilities, we strive daily to ensure our clients have the needed access and opportunities to thrive in the workforce,” said Division of Blind Services Director Robert Doyle.

“Employment of people with disabilities is an economic imperative for our state. It is estimated that 31% of Floridians with disabilities who could and want to be employed are not.  Businesses who recognize the value of disability workforce inclusion realize significant gains in their bottom line, but more importantly in the loyalty of their workforce and customers,” said The Able Trust CEO and President Tony Carvajal.

“The Florida Association of Rehabilitation Facilities (FARF) and RESPECT of Florida are pleased to celebrate the efforts of so many businesses who are empowering Floridians with disabilities through creation of employment opportunities. We join other stakeholders in recognizing their successes and say, ‘thank you’ to these employers for making a meaningful difference in the lives of so many individuals,” said FARF Chief Executive Officer Suzanne Sewell.

Agency for Health Care Administration Bureau Chief for Medicaid Policy Erica Floyd Thomas spoke about the Working People with Disabilities program. Other guest speakers at the event included Florida Linen Services of Jensen Beach employee Rebecca Potvin, Florida Bar Employee Mingdee Hou, and Radiology Associates of Tallahassee employee Reagan Brown, who shared what having a job means to them.

Here is information on the six winning companies:
Blaze Pizza Store 1064
This new business located in Tallahassee has immediately made an effort to be inclusive, hiring two individuals with developmental disabilities to work in the restaurant as part of the entire 41-member workforce. These two employees serve as greeters welcoming patrons when they enter the restaurant. They also assist with sanitizing doors and tables to prevent the spread of COVID-19. These employees are described as pleasant, bubbly, and happy. Their teammates help them by providing natural supports at work.

Lee County Library System
This municipal employer has several library branches in the Ft. Myers area. The library employs 11 individuals with unique abilities and Lee County government employs 41 people. The library system has an outstanding talking library loan program for customers with all types of disabilities. One of the library’s most recent hires is a person with a visual disability who is served by the Division of Blind Services. DBS was able to provide special glasses and a magnifier to assist the person with being able to read the book titles to ensure the books were properly organized when being re-shelved after being returned to the library. This person has been on the job for 18 months and is doing great work.

Rita’s Italian Ice and Frozen Custard of Lake Buena Vista
This sweet shop opened in 2019, and always been inclusive of people with unique abilities, especially those with autism. One of the owners is on the autism spectrum. Since opening, Rita’s has employed 11 people with disabilities. Today, they employ seven people with special abilities out of the 11-member workforce. They go above and beyond for the autistic community. This business hires people that some would consider unemployable and trains them thoroughly, so they excel at their jobs. One individual spent five months in training, but the company did not give up on the person, and now that person is a successful employee.

The Florida Bar
The Florida Bar, the state’s guardian for the integrity of the legal profession, was founded in 1949, and has more than 300 employees in Tallahassee, Orlando, Tampa, Miami, and Ft. Lauderdale. As an official arm of the Florida Supreme Court, The Florida Bar protects the public and fosters a high standard of integrity and competence for Florida’s lawyers. This organization has also fostered an environment of inclusion with its staff with more than six individuals with disabilities employed. The Bar retrofitted its office to make available special emergency evacuation chairs for employees with physical disabilities. They provide extra time to an employee with a cognitive disability and always welcome his job coach. This organization is committed to treating everyone with respect.

Whataburger, Store Number 55, of Ft. Walton Beach
This restaurant has five individuals with unique abilities on the payroll. These individuals hold a wide variety of jobs, including grill cook, fry station cook, a prep attendant, and two employees that serve as porters. Each of these employees fills a critical role in the success of the restaurant. The environment is supportive and accommodating to employees with disabilities allowing extra time for training and adjusting schedules and tasks to meet the needs of the individuals and the restaurant.

Youth Co-Op, Incorporated, of Miami

This company partners with CareerSource in Miami to provide training to individuals looking for work in addition to many other community programs. They currently employ 10 people with disabilities and over the years have hired more than 60 individuals with disabilities. This employer has worked with the Division of Blind Services to provide accommodations such as larger computer monitors. Other accommodations provided include height-adjustable chairs. Sharon Jadoo with the Division of Blind Services wrote Youth Co-Op goes the extra mile to make every employee feel valued and allows them to reach their highest potential with excellent opportunities to grow in their careers. 

APD supports people with developmental disabilities to live, learn, and work in their communities. The agency annually serves more than 55,000 Floridians with autism, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, intellectual disabilities, Down syndrome, Phalen-McDermid syndrome, and Prader-Willi syndrome. For more information about the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, visit APDcares.org or call toll-free 1 866 APD CARES (1 866 273 2273).

   A video of the ceremony is available here

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ADA Anniversary Celebration Receives High Praise from Floridians

Self-advocate and Ms. Wheelchair Florida 2018 Shevie Barnes wants you to close your eyes and imagine yourself in a mall with a group of your closest friends. “This mall,” she explains, “happens to be two stories, and the food court is upstairs. Well, with the ADA in effect there’s definitely an elevator. But as you race toward the elevator to beat everybody upstairs, you see the thing that most of us hate seeing, and that would be the out of order sign.” For most people, this is an inconvenience, requiring them to find the nearest stairs or escalator. However, Barnes wants us to imagine ourselves, instead, in a wheelchair. “Your only way upstairs is gone. What do you do?”

Shevie Barnes presented this scenario as part of her speech during the 30th anniversary celebration of the ADA on July 24. Her speech asked the 400 attendees of this virtual event to examine the daily challenges of living with a disability, to consider how far we’ve come in the 30 years since the ADA made things like elevators a requirement, and how far we still have to go to make a truly accessible world.

For many who attended this event, Barnes’s speech was thought-provoking. In responses to a post-event survey, attendees described Barnes’s speech as “inspirational,” praising her passion and willingness to share her experience. As one respondent explained, “I had just never thought of how someone in a wheelchair would get to a second floor of a mall without an elevator.”

Barnes was one of three keynote speakers who left an impression on attendees. The event also included speeches by Comptroller for the Florida Alliance for Assistive Services and Technology Whitney Harris and Executive Director of the Center for Independent Living of South Florida Peter O’Connell. Like Barnes, Harris and O’Connell shared their personal experiences with the ADA and how it helped them achieve their goals. These speeches were a highlight for most of the attendees, as an overwhelming majority of survey respondents explained that this was their favorite part of the event.

Other highlights included speeches by local and state leaders, self-advocate Kazana McKenzie’s moving performance of the national anthem, and a slide show featuring images of people around the state showing their support of the ADA by wearing their commemorative shirts in their homes and communities. To ensure the ADA Celebration met the public’s expectations, APD did an online survey immediately following the event and received very positive results. More than 90% of survey respondents rated the event as either good or excellent. In the words of one respondent, “Great job not letting the pandemic stop the show!”

Attendees praised the flexibility and dedication of the event organizers. As one respondent said, “It was amazing that the event went forward in the face of formidable challenges for everyone in these troubled times.” Another added, “Thank you for celebrating this live!!! Awesome to be a part of the community and the ADA impact!”

When asked about how this event benefited them and their understanding of the ADA, 61% of respondents said that they left feeling encouraged about the future and 60% felt proud to have been a part of a celebration.

This good feeling was supported by Governor Ron DeSantis, who gave an uplifting message at the beginning of the event. The participation of Governor DeSantis, along with other leaders, prompted 50% of respondents to note that hearing from local leaders was a major benefit of attending.

Although this virtual event was much different than the in-person one originally planned more than seven months ago, APD and our partners are grateful to receive such a swell of positive feedback.

These are challenging times, but it is a testament to advancements in technology that self-advocates, families, providers, and leaders from all over the state were able to come together in celebration of everything that the ADA has helped individuals achieve.

Click here to enjoy the ADA 30th anniversary celebration recorded on Friday, July 24, 2020.