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One of the most basic human rights that we all take for granted is the ability to live in decent housing or communities in our society. But that right doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone, and sadly, too many people in our community with intellectual and developmental disabilities are not able to enjoy that very elemental freedom. They are currently primarily living with family or in host homes in Colorado without many of the options that the rest of us enjoy.
When I look at our employees who work in our 31 stores up and down the Front Range and on the Western Slope who have intellectual and developmental disabilities, I see beyond what they can’t do. Those things make very little difference. I see people who work hard, contribute mightily, and who have so much to give. Giving these nearly 400 amazing people jobs in our stores is far and away the best business decision I have ever made in a nearly 40 year career.
But what troubles me -- as I see how capable these people are -- is that very often they…and many other men and women in Colorado with disabilities…do not have adequate housing options. There are two very tangible -- and fixable -- reasons for this: one, people with disabilities are often paid sub-minimum wages; and two, there is a lack of accessible and affordable housing and communities in which to live.
Today, there are more than 50,000 or more individuals with I/DD in the state of Colorado. The vast major live with their families. A smaller number live in host homes, and a small number live independently. When you consider that there is a shortage of housing for these people in Colorado, those numbers are quite significant. Another issue is that the number of aging people in Colorado with I/DD is growing; they will be needing housing over the next decade, but as things stand now, there are not enough housing options to satisfy this need.
I am a proud parent of a young man with Down syndrome. I worry about where Kennedy will live when I am gone. What I want...and what I am sure other parents of children with I/DD want…are more options. Whether those are independent housing or apartments, planned communities, intentional communities, or co-housing, the options should be broad, just as they should be across all parts of society. People with I/DD, just like everyone else in Colorado, should be able to choose where they want to live.
The solution is as simple as it is complex. We must immediately make creating accessible and affordable housing and communities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities a priority and that begins by encouraging our state’s leadership to get on board. And the time is now.
To further this objective, we must eliminate subminimum wage. I testified earlier this year at the Capitol in support of the Subminimum Wage Employment bill and called for the elimination of subminimum wage employment entirely by 2025. I am proud that Colorado has declared itself an Employment First state, promoting competitive, integrated employment for people with disabilities.
Then, we must eliminate asset limits for public assistance. According to the Center for American Progress, an independent, nonpartisan policy institute, these limits are what “keep disabled people in poverty by requiring applicants to have resources below a certain threshold in order to qualify for benefits. Policymakers should also remove the age limit for opening Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) tax-advantaged savings accounts.”
As a parent and an advocate for the vulnerable, the at-risk, and for those that simply need to be included and afforded the same opportunities we all have come to take for granted, I call upon us all to take a hard and thoughtful look at this issue and set a course that will advance our community…our society…forward.