Fighting for abilities: Frankie Huffman appointed to Employment First Council

  • Frankie and Mark
    Frankie and Mark

    Wheelchairs and other adaptive devices often signal what a person cannot do to those of us who are able-bodied.
    Frankie Huffman wants to change that.
    Huffman, a 2014 graduate of Pendleton County High school and a resident of the county, was recently appointed by Gov. Andy Beshear to the Employment First Council. The council was created by executive order in 2018 by then-Gov. Matt Bevin, and Beshear signed another order on June 29 of this year “to continue the state’s commitment to employment for people with disabilities,” according to the Employment First Kentucky website.
    He is no stranger to advocating for people with physical and intellectual disabilities. His mother Jaime Embry, he says, got him started in high school by taking him to the Arc of Kentucky Conference, a conference that addresses “best practices for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” and a place where he could advocate for those with disabilities.
    From there, Frankie became part of the Protection and Advocacy for persons with Developmental Disabilities (PADD) Advisory Board. “They kind of teach us how to meet with our legislators, talk about procedures, and try to get policies that we may change,” he says.
    “I’m also on the mental health board with UK. We talk about what hospitals and stuff can do better working with people with disabilities—how they can talk to me [instead of guardians].”
    His biggest goal, though, is to get people with disabilities into the regular work force, and that is the focus of the Employment First Council.
    “Employment First is designed to give people jobs in the community earning regular wages and out of the workshop setting,” Huffman explains. “The goal is to get people when they graduate high school working in the community instead of in sheltered workshops. People will be given options, but those options won’t be defined. They will work with their peers instead of being segregated.”
    In fact, Huffman says that the sheltered workshops will be phased out in the state by 2022. Pendleton County’s local workshop, NorthKey, shut down last spring and, according to Huffman, they have no plans to reopen. While many think the workshop setting was helpful to those with disabilities, Huffman explains a problem with them.
    “I was paid to do piece work. I was paid by Medicaid while I was there and paid by DirecTV to clean and package remotes. At the end of the week, I got a $3 check. My hands don’t work well, but we got paid by how fast we could do the job. If you aren’t fast, they dock your pay. The ones who could do the work fast got about $30 a week. We worked all five days.”
    Embry further explains. “The workshops have no specialist to help you find your strengths. They don’t put  people in a setting where they can excel. They just bring you in and tell you what you will do without trying to figure out if you can do it well or not.”
    Huffman adds, “I saw how a lot of people go to the adult setting and all they do is crafts and stuff. I thought I could help people build a better lifestyle.”
    Embry says, “You can tell people every day that they can do things, but I have been putting him out there and letting him excel.”
    As part of the Employment First Council, Huffman hopes to inform businesses of the incentives they can get if they hire people with disabilities. “Not a lot of people know the kickbacks companies can get because not many people are building bridges to get people with disabilities to work. People aren’t going to businesses to let them know this exists. I want that to be one of my goals, to go to businesses to build a bridge. I’ve tried to get a job since I was 19 with no luck.”
    He has been told he can do more than a workshop, but he sees several problems with others who can do the same. One thing is a basic misunderstanding of the social security benefits that disabled people are eligible to receive.
    “I want to explain to people how they can work and keep their social security benefits. People don’t understand that you can work and continue to receive your benefits.
    “People take the path of least resistance, and that isn’t benefitting the people who need it most.”
    Another barrier he sees to people with disabilities having regular jobs in our area is the lack of public transportation. He has also tried to address that with Judge/Executive David Fields. Fields checked into bringing TANK into the county for that purpose and others, but Huffman says that the cost of bringing it here is too high at this time. That barrier has kept Huffman from keeping a job, and he does not blame Fields or anyone else; however, that fact does not keep him from working to get transportation options in the county.
    While Huffman works as an advocate for employment for people with disabilities, he also models the behaviors he wishes to see for the population. He is currently building a house so that he can live independently, and Embry praises family and friends who have stepped up to help. He is also working with State Rep. Mark Hart to form a bill of rights for people with disabilities, something that Huffman says that every state but Kentucky has. The bill of rights, which has input from the PADD Board, will define that all people, including those with disabilities, will be treated equally and that they will have the same rights as able-bodied people. These rights will include their choice of guardian.
    “Right now, a guardian can do what they want,” Huffman says. The bill will allow those who can manage much of their lives on their own to do so. “We can make our own decisions.”
    Rep. Hart praises Huffman’s work. “Right after I was elected, Frankie came to me to talk with me about his concerns, and he has been in every year since. I am impressed with him. There is nobody better qualified to serve on the commission, and I was excited when  the governor gave him the appointment.”
    Hart also confirms that Huffman came up with the idea of a bill of rights. “The disabled are treated like children when they are not children at all.” He states that the pandemic got in the way of the bill, but he filed it last session, and he will again this session.
    When asked to sum up his goals as he starts his work with the Employment First Commission, Huffman is succinct. “I want people with disabilities to have jobs in the community and to be paid regular wages.
    “I hope to help people with disabilities understand that they can go beyond workshops.”
    The current executive order is in place till June 30, 2022.