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Grant puts faith to work for people with disabilities

Mar. 13, 2014, 9:24 AM

The Vanderbilt Kennedy Center will serve as the lead site for a $500,000 grant focused on building capacity of faith communities, such as churches, mosques, synagogues and other religious organizations, to support employment for members with disabilities.

Funded by the Kessler Foundation (Grant No. 661-1219-SEG-FY2013), the focus of the project, called “Putting Faith to Work,” is to enable faith communities to address employment needs of members with disabilities by connecting them to quality employment opportunities through the natural networks represented by congregational members.

Each research site will invite congregations of varying faith traditions to support individuals with physical and/or developmental disabilities in securing and maintaining employment in the community.

The project will culminate with an accessible, step-by-step manual that details key elements of the approach that could be used by the more than 335,000 various congregations nationwide.

“Our proposed model carefully integrates discovery approaches, natural supports and customized employment features and delivers them through faith networks,” said primary investigator Eric Carter, Ph.D., associate professor of Special Education and Vanderbilt Kennedy Center investigator. “But it also builds upon scriptural understandings of the dignity of work, stewardship of one’s talents and gifts and the responsibility of the community to support those ‘on the margins.’ We are convinced that we must work both within and beyond the formal service system if we’re going to fundamentally change the employment landscape for Americans with disabilities.

Statistics from the Department of Labor report that the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is double that of people without disabilities (12.9 percent vs. 6.9 percent). Only 20.7 percent of people with disabilities participate in the labor force, vs. 68.8 percent of people without disabilities.

“By adapting research-based strategies to congregations, this project will expand the reach of what faith communities do so well — address the gifts and needs of their members, maintain strong connections to local communities and address community social problems,” said Courtney Taylor, M.Div., coordinator of the Disabilities, Religion and Spirituality Program.

The Vanderbilt Kennedy Center is a University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, as well as the project’s partner institutions, which include the University of Kentucky’s Human Development Institute, the Texas Center for Disability Studies at the University of Texas and the Institute on Community Integration at the University of Minnesota. All program sites are members of the recently launched National Collaborative on Disabilities, Religion and Spiritual Supports.

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