Mother, daughter advocate for disabled people

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Laura Kovacovich loves her job.

"The world would be a much better place if people loved their jobs as much as I do," says the 25-year-old woman.

She works at the Hubbard County Developmental Achievement Center (DAC) and Bearly Used Thrift Store. Kovacovich has autism and obsessive-compulsive disorder. She also has visual and hearing disabilities.

"I was born with cataracts and my right is blind because I have glaucoma," she explains. "I've worn glasses since I was born."

Kovacovich and her mom, Dawn, are making their voices heard about equal rights for everyone, including people with disabilities.

They marched Jan. 21 in the Bemidji Women's March, held in solidarity with the Million Women March in Washington D.C. Pamela Lemm, one of the Bemidji organizers, invited Laura to speak.

"I am marching today because I believe that handicapped women count," Laura told the crowd. "There are some people who think that all disabled people can and should work in the competitive community and earn at least minimum wage. Because of this, sheltered workshops and group homes are shutting down all across the nation."

Good intentions

Federal legislation — specifically, The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) and the Transitioning to Integrated and Meaningful Employment Act (TIME) — threaten Laura's workplace.

WIOA aims to integrate people with cognitive and/or developmental disabilities into the general workforce. The ruling mandates that workshop employees be paid minimum wage, receive vocational services and seek "competitive integrated employment."

While the law is well-intentioned, says Dawn, it could have a devastating effect on sheltered workshops like the DAC, depending on how Minnesota decides to implement the law this year. Some states — Pennsylvania and Maine — have opted to phase out sheltered workshops all together.

"People that have the highest needs — their parents, families and loved ones are panicked. What are they supposed to do?" said Dawn, adding that many will be forced to stay home to care for their child.

Many disability service providers hold special certificates from the U.S. Department of Labor that exempt them from the federal minimum wage and allow them to pay workers with disabilities based on productivity, instead of a fixed hourly rate.

The TIME Act is proposed legislation that would discontinue those special wage certificates that are critical to a sheltered workshop's operation, according to Dawn.

Laura doesn't need to earn a minimum wage because she gets her income through medical services, she continued.

"People are really compassionate, but aren't understanding the implication of the law," Dawn says.

Park Rapids as a role model

Hubbard County is unique in having a variety of work settings for DAC clients as well as opportunities to develop skills.

Over 100 clients complete jobs at the DAC facility on Pleasant Avenue, the Tin Ceiling, Bearly Used Thrift Store, the Salvage Depot and the Hubbard County Recycling Center.

The Kovacovichs live in northern Hubbard County, but they chose the DAC in Park Rapids over Bemidji's "because the jobs they offer are a better fit for my special needs and disabilities," Laura said.

"We toured every DAC program in the whole northern part of the state to see what the best work options for Laura are. This place is amazing, right here in our Hubbard County," Dawn remarked. "Everybody has something to do. Everybody. From the oldest client to the most needy developmentally to the highest functioning. So every ability is met."

Dawn calls the multiple work environments at the Hubbard County DAC "unprecedented. There's really nowhere else like it in the state."

The low-key, peaceful vibe is essential.

"The pace is what's really important here because there's a lot of anxiety issues with people that have special needs. You can't stick a person with anxiety issues in a fast-paced setting," Dawn said.

Laura admits she becomes "anxious or upset very easily if things don't work right away, if there are unexpected changes, or if people accidentally get into my work space. I don't always know how to appropriately handle social situations."

"Sometimes when I get frustrated, I hit the wall," she said. "Some people don't understand my OCD. I obsess about certain things. I repeat things over and over. I repeat phrases from cartoons."

DAC staff, therapists and supervisors are specially trained to work with people with special needs, like autism. There's also a room set aside where Laura can take a break from her job and regain her composure.

An exercise room — another feature unique to Hubbard County DAC — is a source of good health and wellness for DAC clients. Laura exercises for 30 minutes three days a week.

"Because a healthy worker is what?" Dawn asks Laura.

"A happy one!" is the exuberant reply.

Angry outbursts are rare at the DAC, Dawn says, but would be more common if Laura worked in a stressful, competitive workplace alongside non-developmentally challenged colleagues.

Even if there was a supportive boss, Dawn worries about her daughter's safety and vulnerability in an integrated workplace.

In a capitalistic society where productivity is demanded, "mainstream work is never going to be appropriate for all people. We need some supportive work settings and I believe we should expand those settings so there's more diversity for everybody, " she explains. "I feel like we have to have choices for every part of the spectrum."

Laura was mainstreamed all through her public school years, "because we believe in inclusion, but she never had a friend," Dawn said. "When we saw her at school, she was always withdrawn, quiet."

All that has changed at the DAC.

"Mike and I have never seen her so happy. Ever. And I think it has to do with her social needs being met," she said.

"A lot of my handicapped co-workers have become my friends because we have lots in common," Laura said. "I always come home from work happy."

Laura would like to live in a supportive group home with those friends, but there's a shortage in housing. Group home licensures have been frozen for nearly a decade, Dawn says, so Laura still resides at home.

Laura remains eager to advocate for her rights and others. When she learned her sister, a social worker, was participating at the march in Washington D.C., Laura decided she wanted to march too.

While at a sign-making activity in Bemidji, Laura met Lemm, who then invited her to speak at the Jan. 21 march.

"We all want equal rights. All of us are not the same. All of us are different, but we all want equal rights, including handicapped men and women like me," Laura says. "Different races. Different skin colors."

Laura also wrote a letter to the Minnesota Department of Health and Human Services because restructuring of disability service providers, based on the WIOA, begins this year.

"The perception of the public is these work settings are greedy, like sweatshops. Absolutely not true," Dawn says. "There's room for growth. There's always room for growth, but what they're doing in Park Rapids should a be a model for the state. It's just remarkable."

"I want to work here for 45 years until I'm 70," Laura asserts.
"My heart tells me Minnesota will do the right things for handicapped people," Dawn says.