from The Capital Journal by Andy Marso:
When school officials told Ray Steffy his son Joe would never be able to hold down a job because of his autism and Down syndrome, the elder Steffy got mad. Then he went into action.
"I was just determined to prove to them he could work," Steffy said.
Joe is now 26. He not only works, he creates work for others. With the help of his father and mother, Janet, Joe started Poppin' Joe's — a kettle corn business that grossed $60,000 last year and has seven part-time employees.
The Steffy family came from Louisburg to Topeka's Capitol Plaza Hotel on Wednesday to tell the story of Poppin' Joe's as part of a two-day conference for people with disabilities and their advocates.
The Employment First Summit follows up on groundbreaking legislation signed by Gov. Sam Brownback this past May that requires state programs and services to promote the employment of Kansans with disabilities.
The administration's focus on employment drew praise the day before from a panel of advocates who were otherwise critical of the governor because of his proposed Medicaid reform. Brownback himself opened the conference Wednesday morning by briefly addressing the overflow crowd of several hundred attendees.
Brownback was followed by David Hoff, of the Institute for Community Inclusion in Boston.
"We need to make sure this legislation is not just empty words," Hoff said. "It's one thing to have a piece of legislation or policy. It's a whole other thing to implement it."
Hoff outlined a seven-point plan for realizing the goals of the new law, including funding jobs programs and shattering misconceptions among the disabled and their families that there is no work for them or they will lose government aid if they work.
Mickayla Fink, of the Workforce Alliance of South Central Kansas, attended the conference. Fink, who is working with a grant through the federal Disability Employment Initiative, said she was eager to network with other advocates at the conference and share ideas.
Fink said part of her job in Wichita is obtaining assistive technology for the disabled to help them in the work force, such as hearing aids she was able to get for a hearing-impaired man.
Assistive technology also proved key for Joe Steffy, who is largely nonverbal and uses an electronic device to help him communicate. He also got assistance from Vocational Rehab and home- and community-based Medicaid services.
Ray Steffy said although he and his wife keep the books, Joe is the driving force behind Poppin' Joe's. The company makes five flavors of kettle corn, sells at carnivals and fairs, and has corporate clients, including financial powerhouse State Street.
By pushing a button on his DynaVox system, Joe told a roomful of people Wednesday about how his business has allowed him to live on his own, connect with members of his community and travel.
"Because I work," he said, "my life is full of meaningful adventures."