Is New Jersey Really an Employment-First State? Hmm?
NJ claims to be an Employment First state for people with disabilities, yet the proposed $12,000 annual premium for people making less than a six-figure salary makes me go “Hmm?”’.
The reasoning behind the proposed premium is, even more, exasperating in its logic. The policy wonks believe that once the high income limits become effective there will be this huge influx of people with disabilities suddenly getting high-paying jobs who also need long-term support services during the first year. Seriously?
Why aren’t these people working now under WorkAbility? Hmm, perhaps they are sitting around waiting for these positions to appear. Or perhaps people with disabilities face many more barriers to being employed. Which scenario is more rooted in reality?
The latest National Trend in Disability Employment (nTIDE) from NJ’s Kessler Foundation may help in defining the current reality of those other barriers. Hmm, a seven-tenth of one percent increase over 30 days nationally. Certainly, that is a positive trend for people with disabilities, but does it support the current thinking behind the premium proposal that, somehow, all these other barriers will disappear creating this stampede of people with disabilities obtaining gainful employment once these income limits are increased?
This reasoning ignores that the WorkAbility reform intended to allow people already working and on WorkAbility to have salary increases without endangering their long-term support services needed to work. High pay means paying more taxes, which may actually be a net savings to the program. Allowing the current WorkAbility recipients to get higher salaries does not increase the program’s costs. They stay the same no matter what the recipient is paid.
Yes, in the coming years, WorkAbility will get more people applying; yes, a cost-sharing premium may be needed at some point. But let the people on the program now have a chance to increase their incomes before imposing this additional tax on us. It’s not equitable or fair, and it’s based on faulty assumptions.
Norman A. Smith, HCCP
Co-Founder/Associate Executive Director
Project Freedom Inc.
Past Chair, NJ Statewide Independent Living Council
The National Council on Disability (NCD), a presidentially-appointed council, has written that the foundation of a person’s ability to live, learn, work, and earn, is to have and maintain good health that encompasses mental, physical, and overall well-being. But there are great disparities in the health care system for people with disabilities to prevent this. To begin to correct some of these disparities, the NCD calls for us to be designated SMUPs. These are not little blue people!
Let’s look at why the NCD wants this designation before explaining what SMUPs are.
“For people across all categories of disabilities, attaining and maintaining good health has been elusive,” the NCD wrote in a recent report. The “unwelcoming healthcare system….for decades has failed 26% of the United States population, so much so that people with disabilities utilize the healthcare system for disease management instead of disease prevention.” People with disabilities “can even view the healthcare system as a source of potential harm.”
“It is a paradigm that exists as a result of avoidable systemic barriers within our healthcare system,” stated the NCD.
Some of NCD’s findings are:
If you are a person with a physical, intellectual, or developmental disability, your life expectancy is less than that of someone without disabilities.
You are more than three times as likely to have arthritis, diabetes, and a heart attack.
You are five times more likely to report a stroke, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, and depression.
You are more likely to be obese.
You are significantly more likely to have unmet medical, dental, and prescription needs.
If you are a woman with a disability, you are likely to receive poorer maternity care and less likely to have received a Pap smear test or a mammogram.
If you are a pregnant woman with a disability, you have a much higher risk for severe pregnancy- and birth-related complications and eleven times the risk of maternal death.
If you are an adult who is Deaf or hard of hearing, you are three times as likely to report fair or poor health as compared to those who do not have hearing impairments.
If you have an intellectual disability, it is the strongest predictor for COVID-19 infection and the second strongest predictor for COVID-19 death.
If you live in a rural area, your disability appears to further worsen barriers to accessing healthcare.
These disparities are exacerbated if you are a person with a disability and a person of color.
NCD’s proposed solution to combat the institutional barriers in the health care system is NCD’s Health Equity for People with Disabilities Framework.
Through its research, collaboration with experts, and consultation with members of the disability community, NCD’s findings reveal five primary policy issues to build upon the advancement of health equity for people with disabilities. Drumroll, please!
Designating people with disabilities as a Special Medically Underserved Population (SMUP) under the Public Health Services Act;
Designating people with disabilities as a Health Disparity Population under the Minority Health and Health Disparities Research and Education Act;
Requiring comprehensive disability clinical-care curricula in all US medical, nursing and other healthcare professional schools and requiring disability competency education and training of medical, nursing and other healthcare professionals;
Requiring the use of accessible medical and diagnostic equipment; and
Improving data collection concerning healthcare for people with disabilities across the lifespan.
The first component requires congressional action in terms of passing legislation. Of course, that rang my advocacy alert bells.
To achieve health equity for people with disabilities, it is critical that people with disabilities be legally identified as a Special Medically Underserved Population (SMUP) under the Public Health Service Act, with the corresponding benefits associated with that designation. Medically Underserved Population designations require population groupings based upon geography. This is not an applicable means of providing equitable healthcare to the national community of people with disabilities. To get around this technicality, people with disabilities must be designated by Congress as a Special Medically Underserved Population through a revision of Section 330 of the Public Health Service Act.
A copy of NCD’s latest report on this issue, where all of the above information was excerpted. can be found here.
I will be following this issue and will be connecting with Project Freedom’s congressional contingent (Reps. Chris Smith, Andy Kim, and Jeff Van Drew: Senators Robert Menendez and Corey Booker) to make them aware of this issue. Watch for future updates.
The New Jersey Legislature passed a law that requires the New Jersey Department of Human Services (DHS) to study social isolation among four specified groups: seniors age 65 and older, individuals with disabilities, individuals with mental illness, and those who have or currently serve in the military.
For this study, social isolation is defined as a lack of contact or meaningful connection with others. Social isolation may have varying effects on someone’s quality of life and well-being. By studying how widespread social isolation is and determining related risk factors, it is hoped that services can be improved or introduced to improve people’s lives.
Your participation in this survey is completely voluntary. Your responses will not affect the services you receive. If you are helping someone to complete the survey, please make sure you are providing their responses and not your own.
All responses provided are anonymous and will be reported in an aggregated manner. Any questions regarding this survey can be sent to Oresp@dhs.nj.gov.
“ Happy Trails to you, until we meet again, Happy Trails to you, keep smilin’ until then. Who cares about the clouds when we’re together? Just sing a song and bring the sunny weather. Happy Trails to you, till we meet again.
Such were the words to the theme song to the TV show, “ Roy Rodgers and Dale Evans” back in the 1950s. And they fit for my last article in our Newsletter as Project Freedom’s Executive Director. As of July 1, 2021, I will be retiring as ED, giving the reigns over to our own Tracee Battis. Knowing Tracee as I do, I am confident she will do an outstanding job, and provide great leadership into the future. And of course, Norman remains our founder, who constantly reminds us of his vision and mission—Independence. His influence will continue on and into the future.
I must say, that I never had any idea that this would be the last place for me to end my career. Back in 1997, I had stopped to talk with Norman about selling my accessible van thinking that it would be better to sell to someone who really needed it rather than just trading it in. Our conversation that day led to my giving a presentation to the Board of Trustees, who offered me the job. And as they say, the rest is history.
However, my history with the disability community really started back in 1974, when my daughter, Jennifer was born with CP. Back then there weren’t many options for services let alone housing. Marion and I would be involved in organizing parent support for educational opportunities, and ultimately I became involved with Norman in forming Project Freedom. I remember Norman coming into my gas station with his Dad, and talking to me about his ideas and his vision for independence. I joined the Board, and became the first Chairman of the Board of Trustees. As a volunteer, we lobbied our public officials to get funds to build our first housing community in Robbinsville, called Freedom I, which opened in 1991. Fast Forward to today, and ten projects later, we are just completing our Robbinsville Town Center project, and about to break ground on our second one in Hamilton Township, across from the Library.
I must say it has been a lot of work, not always enjoyable, but always exciting. Finding a suitable site, getting town approvals, getting our funding, managing the construction, doing the lease-up, and hiring staff—all things that can lead you to pull your hair out. But in the end, very worthwhile.
So, as I sadly write these words, I don’t have any regrets whatsoever. I have been fortunate to have worked with our great staff, which keeps growing every day with our consumers, who I know treasure our housing because it makes life easier and gives them a safe, and clean environment. I’ve also enjoyed working together with my wife Marion, for the past nine years, in a professional capacity, and really need to share my success with her. And, of course, our Board of Trustees, who for the most part, took on the enormous risks involved, and supported our housing developments.
So, one thing Marion and I have always done, and that follows the Holy Spirit and trust in the Lord.
God Bless, keep well and “Happy Trails to you, until we meet again”.
Tenant Writes “Heartfelt Thanks” to PFI Lawrence Staff
It isn’t often that we get a thank you from tenants for something done by our PFI staff that has helped or affected their lives. That is why I was surprised to get a very nice phone call from one of our Lawrence tenants, Peggy Newman, with regard to something she needed to tell me. So, when I did get to talk to her, she very much wanted to let me know how she felt about our office staff, Robin Brown and Brianne Foley, and how they helped her cope and get through this past year with Covid and all the issues we all faced.
In Peggy’s own words, “There aren’t enough Thank you’s for me to express my thanks for all your help and kindness. They say there are angels among us, and I am glad that I found mine. Life’s struggles are so constant in this age, that we live in. That’s why God has sent two beautiful angels to care for us. Their names are Brianne and Robyn. Thank you Jesus, for putting them in my path. They make each day a blessing”.
Peggy is a long-time resident of our Lawrence community. She can be seen whizzing around the complex, usually helping others by walking their dogs or running an errand for another tenant. Peggy usually participates in our activities when we have been able to put them on and is very outgoing and sociable. Peggy uses a power chair to get around, but like so many others, has been a prisoner in her own home, so I was glad to hear that Robyn and Brianne were able to help her during this time.
Last fall, Project Freedom recognized the work that some other organizations, such as ARM in ARM and the Jewish Family Services agency, for providing food for many of our tenants. I know that both Robyn and Bri make those monthly distributions to all our Lawrence tenants (Rosario helps as well ) so that everyone gets something each month. In addition, it gives them a chance to see how folks are doing; and to lend a hand if needed. Peggy also commented about how she felt that we were all a family who cared about each other and that she felt “blessed”.
So kudos to Lawrence PFI staff; keep up the good work.
Last month, in the midst of leasing up our new “ Freedom Village at Town Center” apartment complex, we welcomed Robbinsville mayor David Fried to our community to celebrate a special achievement. It was to honor and recognize a Robbinsville Freshman, Zoya Jadhav, for winning second place in a Statewide Essay contest. For her achievement, Zoya won a $ 300 cash prize but donated half of her winnings to Project Freedom, which is really the big part of this story.
As many of you know, Mayor Fried is very proud of his town, Robbinsville, and especially proud when his students from the town, achieve success, and wanted to recognize Zoya for her achievement. Since she wanted to donate half her award to Project Freedom, he reached out to us, to see if we could host a small gathering to recognize her and give her a Town citation. Of course we said yes, and so staff prepared some light refreshment and welcomed the mayor, Zoya and her family to our new Community Center. What also made that day special was that it was Zoya’s 15th birthday.
It was quite evident to me, in talking to Zoya’s family that they are special people and that Mom and Dad are raising their children to very high standards. When I asked Zoya what she would like to do with her life, she said that she wanted to become a doctor. Indeed the story that she wrote, was about a young person who was sick with the Covit 19 virus, and ended up in the hospital. There, she encounters another child, Charlie, who is chatty and annoying at first, but then also comes down with the illness. They are now both struggling to hold on and breathe, and form a bond and friendship as they fight this terrible disease.
Her story is fictional yet has a basis in reality for many of those folks who have suffered with this terrible pandemic. The loneliness, the separation from family, the soreness of having an IV in your arm and the sounds of those hospital monitoring machines, all created a vivid picture of her torture. Her story is told, one paragraph at a time, with the headings of “ One. Two “ which I think was to mimic the rhythm of those hospital sounds. Yet it is a story of friendship that will ultimately win out.
The title of her story is “Amity Amidst a Crisis” which means friendship during a crisis, and becomes the ultimate relationship the two sick children forge as they fight to breathe. So although fictional, her point here is that during times of crisis or major life-changing conditions, we as human beings put aside our petty differences and come together to survive. We respond to each other and will help each other to overcome those challenges to survive and make a better life. What a mature thing for a 15-year old student to understand and capture in a story. The essay can be found on our website by Clicking Here
Looks to me that Zoya has a talent and bright future as a writer if that doctor thing doesn’t work out. I think many of us “Adults” could learn a thing or two from her. Happy Birthday, Zoya.
Tim Doherty and Norman Smith remember John K. “Jack” Rafferty and his impact on Project Freedom’s formative year.
It was sad for everyone in Hamilton and Mercer County to learn of Jack’s passing this February. He did so much for the citizens of Hamilton Township and for a little organizations like Project Freedom. Many people may not know the full true story of how Project Freedom got established. Much of who we are today, couldn’t have been done, without Jack’s help. So, here’s the story.
We all know that Project Freedom was Norman Smith’s dream for achieving his independence. When he returned home from college living once again with his elderly parents, he felt his life was taking a step back rather than a step forward with a new life. He had successfully lived in New York at college with his roommate, and knew that he could accomplish anything he put his mind to if only given the supports he needed.
So, Norman along with Frieda Applegate started the Nottingham Recreation Center for the Physically Limited. They organized a day program and then began to think about the other needs such as housing. Long and short, Norman gathered community support with others, including myself, who had family members with a disability. Along the way, Jack Rafferty, the mayor of Hamilton heard about Norman’s efforts and over the early years provided meeting space for his program activities. Eventually Jack ran and won a single term in the New Jersey Legislature, and as part of that membership was able to get a single grant for $ 150,000 for Project Freedom. After several years of fundraising, bingos, and the like, it was this grant that really gave Project Freedom the ability to hire an architect and seriously talk about housing.
That effort became reality in 1990, when Project Freedom was able to win tax credits that year and ultimately build our first Project Freedom on Hutchinson Rd in Robbinsville. We tried to find land in Hamilton, however none was available at the time. We did finally build in Hamilton in 2000, when we purchased land from St. Anthony’s on Kuser Road.
Along the way, many people helped get Project Freedom where we are today, but it was that initial support from our Hamilton Angel, Jack Rafferty, that really got us going. In subsequent years, Jack would come to our yearly gala’s and helped with our ongoing fundraising. He was so proud when we were able to finally bring our housing to Hamilton, and build our 48 units there on Kuser Road.
As Mayor of Hamilton Jack helped so many other non profits and community organizations in Hamilton. I know that he is personally responsible for the success of the Hamilton Y and all that they offer Hamilton consumers. Jack Rafferty will always be remembered as our Angel.
This month is the 37th anniversary of Project Freedom’s incorporation as an organization in New Jersey. It was our first serious step toward bringing an idea into concrete reality.
In the life of any organization, there are moments in time when an individual makes a big difference. Project Freedom has had many, but in those early years when the path to success was fraught with obstacles, one political person was truly Project Freedom’s first angel.
John K. “Jack” Rafferty was mayor of Hamilton Township when the “Project Freedom” concept was first conceived. By shear happenstance, I was invited to write for Jack’s unsuccessful run for governor, and as I have written many times, that brief opportunity gave me visibility and credibility to promote the idea of what Project Freedom became.
In fact, our name came out a meeting with Jack when he asked Frieda Applegate and me what we were going to call this “house” we wanted to build. Frieda looked at me, and with very little thought “Project Freedom” popped out of my mouth. And that became our marketing tool before we incorporated.
A couple years later, Jack became Assemblyman Rafferty, and he was able to secure $150,000 state grant for Project Freedom through legislation. This was fuel for our planning engine as it empowered us to get architectural plans and hire all the professionals for the development phase of a building project.
Jack did that for us at a time when we were spinning our proverbial wheels. From there, we had a path to move forward. The path had more pitfalls and obstacles, but we had a way forward and professionals to help.
I’m remembering this because my friend Jack Rafferty passed in February . He is mourned by many in New Jersey as a decent and dedicated family man, public servant, and politician who loved his community.
In an online remembrance of Jack, I contributed these thoughts:
“Jack Rafferty was a friend; he was a friend to me, a friend to Project Freedom, and a friend to the disability community. I was a small part of Jack’s gubernatorial campaign, and this opened doors for me to co-found Project Freedom. When Jack was in the legislature, he secured seed money that enabled our first complex to be planned. Jack established one of the first Mayor’s Office for Disabilities in New Jersey during a time when we had very limited community visibility. He truly was an angel to Project Freedom, and for that reason we gave Jack our first Angel Award.”
We will miss Jack, but his legacy continues every time we open a new community. Rest in Peace, my friend.
Well what a year 2020 has been! What started out as a normal year, became topsy turvy with the emergence of the Covid-19 virus, and how our lives did change. No longer could we go out to dinner, assemble in church, or visit our grandparents in nursing homes. Many companies were forced to have employees work from home, but many people also got laid off.
Our own work schedules have been altered so that our offices had to close, our recreation programs put on hold, and Board and staff meetings became “Zoom” meetings. Schools closed, and then opened and closed again while offering virtual learning became the order of the day for schools and colleges.
For Project Freedom though, it was a productive year. We finished construction on two large housing communities, one in West Windsor and one in Gibbsboro, leased them up and continued construction on a third in Robbinsville. At the same time, we laid plans for a second community in Hamilton having won the funding and Tax Credits in 2019. We hope to break ground for “Hamilton Woods” in the Spring of 2021.
The year started out in sadness in losing our long time Lawrence receptionist, Nate Smith, who was our good friend. However, as PFI continued to grow we added construction manager, Bob Fasulo and Human Resource Manager, Marilou Chinchilla, as well as adding Gibbsboro Manager Wendy Pritsky. Joanne Sherry, took over the new West Windsor Community while Brianne Devlin stepped up to become our Lawrence Manager.
We restructured our management team, appointed Jackie Elsowiny, Frank Sciarrotta, and Dara Johnson as Regional Managers. These changes were necessary to manage the growth we had just experienced, and have made our organization stronger, as we look forward to 2021.
As we enter 2021, there is great anticipation that the new vaccines, which have been developed at Warp Speed, will provide the protection we all need from this pandemic, and that very soon we will be able to return to a more normal lifestyle. For me personally, it will be my last year as Executive Director, as I hope to retire on July 1, marking my 24th year of service. What started out as a visit with Norman to sell my handicapped van, became my life’s work. It has been a wonderful and exciting journey, seeing a small non-profit housing company grow to over eleven housing communities of over 500 units. I am grateful to all whom I have worked with, from our Board of Trustees, our dedicated staff and our wonderful tenants. You have made that journey special.
Finally I want to thank my son Tim and daughter Jen for always supporting my efforts, but most of all, my wife Marion, for being my sounding board and providing her wisdom and guidance. Working with her every day has been special. So the reins are past to another special lady–Tracee Battis, who will become the new Executive Director. Tracee not only has the talent, experience and knowledge to handle the job, she also has the heart. Our Mission is safe in her hands. Project Freedom continues the journey.
“True freedom is to have power over oneself for everything,” wrote French philosopher Michel de Montaigne in 1588. For 36 years Project Freedom has implemented this concept for people with disabilities through our housing and advocacy. This happens through the generous support of friends and contributors during bad times and good times.
This past year was probably the most challenging of Project Freedom’s history. It has been the opposite of freedom and independence and optimism. It has been dark and foreboding and a bit scary.
Yet through it all the glimmer of light from the flame of hope never went out. Our tenants—especially those with disabilities–proved their resilience and strength every day as they dealt with the lockdown. We learned how to help each other stay healthy and safe as we fought off loneliness and isolation through technology.
Project Freedom moved forward with opening two new complexes, constructing a third, moving forward on a fourth in pre-construction and a fifth in active planning. All the while, supporting the most vulnerable tenants with donated food and information resources. Project Freedom’s impact never wavered. Our advocacy never ceased.
With your help, our impact will be greater in the next years as we continue promote freedom through independent living when the COVID-19 virus is conquered. This is the season for giving, and if you are so inclined to give to Project Freedom, it is not too late to become a 20120 Supporter! Your gift will be appreciated and acknowledged by yours truly. Donate Now Button
Project Freedom is also an AmazonSmile charity, and you may select us if you participate in that program as you buy gifts. Go to smile.amazon.com/ch/22-2532804 and Amazon donates to Project Freedom Inc.
Meanwhile, I hope all of my readers have wonderful and joyous holidays, receive the gift of peace and love, and have the companionship of those dearest to you.
Norman A. Smith,
Follow me on Twitter @normansmith02
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