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State lawmakers urged to update rules for employment of people with disabilities

A group of advocates say a state law that helps ensure employment opportunities for people with disabilities is in need of an overhaul.

Under New York’s Preferred Source law, when most public agencies need products or services, they’re required to purchase them from organizations that employ people with disabilities, the blind, and correctional services work programs. But advocates for people with disabilities say the law, which was established more than 40 years ago, no longer does enough to ensure equity.

With a campaign known as “Make the Change,” organizations like The Arc of Erie County – an agency that provides support and employment opportunities for people with disabilities – are urging lawmakers across the state to update Preferred Source by signing a bill now sitting in the state Assembly.

“Today, it’s very good program, but there is jeopardy,” said William McHugh, CEO of The Arc of Erie County. “There is a lot of legislation and regulations and bureaucracy and it’s getting more and more difficult for employers that love what [people with disabilities] do to carry that bureaucracy and keep these programs together.”

Under the proposed bill, changes to Preferred Source would include changes such as simplifying contract review and administrative processes, defining market price versus lowest price, and bringing back the ability for minimal subcontracting of work.

Across the state, nearly 7,000 individuals with disabilities are employed through Preferred Source.

“If we’re able to get those changes and implement those changes, I think that we can continue to grow as we have in the past,” said Ron Romano, President of New York State Industries for the Disabled. “Our goal was always to employ ten thousand people, and I think that can be done in the next five years.”

Right now, 70 percent of working-age individuals with disabilities across the state are unemployed – a number which Romano said equates to close to 1-million people.

John Robinson, CEO of Our Ability, said updating Preferred Source is about empowering people with disabilities. He said, in addition to tax credits, they also bring economic benefits to companies, staying seven times longer in employment compared to workers without disabilities.

“That’s a huge lift to the bottom line of an organization,” said Robinson. “That’s less training cost, that’s less recruiting cost, that’s more retention, and that’s more knowledge staying within the organization.”

State Senator Robert Ortt, who co-signed an already passed Senate version of the bill to update Preferred Source told a crowd of workers with disabilities in downtown Buffalo that ensuring work for them is the right thing to do.

“It’s the right thing, but it’s not charity,” said Ortt. “Everyone in this room, and a lot of people who aren’t here today - you provide a valuable skill set to employers. Employers want the skills you offer. They’re not just doing it to be nice. They’re doing it because you provide a valuable resource, a valuable service, a valuable skill set to our local economy.”

Advocates say the proposed updates to Preferred Source change would have no negative financial impact on the 2018 state budget. Ortt and other lawmakers hope the bill will be passed by the Assembly and Governor Andrew Cuomo before the April 1 budget deadline.

Follow WBFO's Avery Schneider on Twitter at @SAvery131.

Avery began his broadcasting career as a disc jockey for WRUB, the University at Buffalo’s student-run radio station.
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