Q&A with Kelly PeLong, Disability Network of Mid-Michigan

Kelly PeLong is the executive director of the Disability Network of Mid-Michigan (DNMM). She’s served in that role for two and a half years and has worked for the organization for 26 years, mostly in management. PeLong has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Central Michigan University and is a licensed social worker. She’s also a certified human resources specialist. PeLong has used a wheelchair since she was 8 or 9 years old.

The Disability Network’s main office is in Midland. They serve 12 counties and have satellite offices in Saginaw, Bay City, and Gratiot County. Their 52 employees provide outreach, advocacy, information, and referrals to 9,000 persons annually. The Disability Network also provides ongoing support on a monthly, weekly, and sometimes daily basis to another 300 persons. 
Disability Network Mid-Michigan banner displayed at the ADA celebration.
The organization serves anyone with a disability, primarily persons with a developmental or a mental health disability. The DNMM’s primary sources of funding come from the state’s independent living budget, the federal government, fees for service agreements with Community Mental Health and Michigan Rehabilitation Services, United Way, and fundraisers. The DNMM is 1 of 15 in Michigan.

This week, the Disability Network celebrated the 31st anniversary of the day the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law. The ADA prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all public and private places that are open to the public. The law is designed to ensure people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as the rest of the population.

Q: What have been the successes of the ADA so far? 

A: Now accessibility is more of a priority in the design phase of buildings and streetscapes; planners call disability organizations for ideas. There’s been a lot of discussion about the elimination of the subminimum wage for people with disabilities — that’s when essentially people are paid on a piecemeal rate instead of on the value of what they’re doing. 

The ADA prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities.Advances in technology: offering people new ways to contribute and communicate in their communities. We want to be a voice at the table, and we need to be a voice at the table. There are now these laws to back our civil rights. People are starting to recognize that disabilities are a part of everyday life. It’s not a matter of if you have a disability, it’s a matter of when because people live longer and are aging in place. 

Q: What are the challenges persons with disabilities are still facing?  

A: The 1 in 5 persons who have a disability are twice as likely to be unemployed. Considering the ADA was signed 31 years ago, the unemployment rate still hovers around 70% for people with disabilities. About 7% who are not working are actively looking for work. 

Q: There are reports that employers can’t fill jobs across many businesses, nonprofits, and government. Why should employers consider individuals with disabilities?

 A: 2020 has taught us that we can be creative in our workspaces. Persons with disabilities represent an untapped talent pool. If employers look at things like how job descriptions are structured where one person has to do all these things, consider breaking down those positions into different tasks that can be done by different people. 
Kelly PeLong at the ADA's 31st anniversary celebration in Auburn.
Transportation doesn’t have to be a barrier. If a remote working environment can be accommodated, consider using the technology we’ve used in the past year to give these people an edge as well. 

I also think some of the social justice issues have opened the door to more conversation about inclusion and diversity and that’s not just about race. Recent studies show that businesses who put a greater emphasis on hiring people with disabilities have helped their revenue stream. One study says up to a 28% increase. It’s enabled them to be more creative. 

Q: What‘s your takeaway?

A: People with disabilities have something to offer their community. Their employers can feel innovative. We’re always striving to be innovative. 
Banner displaying 31st anniversary date of the Americans with Disabilities Act
One of the things we’re focusing on lately is we hear about people who come across barriers to accessibility. The people responsible don’t think about that. They say people with disabilities don’t come (to their event/place). We need to be where everybody else is.  We want everything to be welcoming, accessible, and inclusive for everybody. There are a lot of disabilities you don’t see as well; some are hidden. Making it accessible for everyone makes things better for all of us. 

Read more articles by Ron Beacom.

Ron Beacom has served as the managing editor of Catalyst Midland since October 2020. He's also a freelance writer for the Midland Daily News and the producer/host of "Second Act: Life at 50 Plus" for WDCQ-Delta College Public Media (PBS). He's the co-producer of two WDCQ documentaries about the Tittabawassee River Disaster in 2020. "Breached! and Breached!2-The Recovery."