By Joel Hall
Debbie Walker-Lass, the specialist manager for Clayton County Public Schools' WORKTEC employment and training center, was recently tapped to serve as president of the Georgia chapter of the Association for Persons in Supported Employment (APSE).
Walker-Lass, who works locally to secure employment for people with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities, will now be tasked with advocating for those individuals at the state level.
Since 1998, Walker-Lass, of McDonough, has worked for WORKTEC, first as assistant specialist manager and for the past six years as the specialist manager, overseeing supported employment programs for individuals with behavioral health issues. Eleven years prior to working at WORKTEC, she worked as a case manager for the Clayton Mental Health Center (now the Clayton Community Services Board).
Walker-Lass, who has been a member of Georgia APSE for one year, said her first meeting as president of the organization was held on Monday. At the top of her list of goals will be advocating at the State Capitol for funding for supported employment programs for people with disabilities, which were cut drastically during fiscal year 2009, she said.
"There used to be 2,241 slots for supported employment," across the state, Walker-Lass said. "That was in 2008. We were cut in the middle of the fiscal year in 2009 ... It amounted to a 67 percent budget cut across the state. Now that number has dwindled down to less than 550 [supported employment jobs]. The loss of [financial] support means the loss of jobs period.
"We do want to raise public awareness and legislative awareness of Employment First initiatives," she continued. "Employment First says that you will consider employment as the first option for recovery [for people with mental and physical disabilities] ... One of the best ways people can recover is to be an active part of their community. There are budget cuts all over the state, but there are a lot of stimulus-based employment programs out there and we shouldn't forget that people with disabilities want to work just as much as anybody else."
Walker-Lass said her other goals as president of Georgia APSE include increasing the organization's membership -- which now is about 100 members strong -- and extending educational outreach efforts to legislators, employers, and the general community about supported employment.
This year, she said, the Georgia APSE will be the host chapter of the 21st Annual National APSE Conference, which will take place in Atlanta June 8-10.
"There are all sorts of people who have employment programs and if we can all get behind employment as a recovery tool, we will all be much better off," Walker-Lass said. "It's important, not just for the moral responsibility, but because it makes good fiscal sense as well. Supported employment allows for people to be contributing taxpayers."