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Cotton Speaks on Senate floor About the Mid-Arkansas River Valley Abilities Workshop and Protecting Persons with Disabilities

July 7, 2016

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of visiting the Mid-Arkansas River Valley Abilities Workshop, better known as MARVA, in Russellville, Arkansas, just over the bridge from my hometown of Dardanelle. For more than 40 years, MARVA has provided individuals with developmental disabilities meaningful work in a supportive environment and given them access to a variety of social services. Those employed at MARVA produce and sell, for example, top-quality recyclables, planners, and calendars.

My visit to MARVA deeply moved me. I saw firsthand how important this organization is to so many Arkansans. And I met and heard from some truly amazing people. Like Ron, who has been at MARVA for 17 years. Ron said he had dropped out of three different colleges and was fired from ten jobs before he was diagnosed with a mental illness. Ron was actually told by one former employer "you are dumb and have no future". Ron moved back to Arkansas and found his place at MARVA, where he's currently thriving. In Ron's words, "Marva has helped me to feel that I can be independent and encouraged me to feel a sense of worth. I feel that my life has come from the gutter to glory. I can't imagine any other life. I don't want to get fired again."

I also met Mike, an Arkansan who's been employed at MARVA for 38 years. 38 years! Mike was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at the age of two. He was lucky enough to have parents who took him to the best schools and the best physical therapy, but there are still real limitations from his disability. For Mike, then, MARVA has been a saving grace. His mom said it's a safe environment for him to grow as a person, providing purpose for his life and a network of friends with whom to socialize and earn a little money while doing it.

MARVA offers Ron, Mike, and 28 other Arkansans a chance to be a part of a team, a chance to do meaningful work, to make friends, and to have loving, understanding coaches and mentors who recognize their limitations. It offers them integration and a chance to live a full and meaningful life.

I talk about MARVA today not just because it's an incredible place with incredible people, but because there's a movement afoot in Congress that could harm or even eliminate places like MARVA.

Section 14c of the Fair Labor Standards Act helps create employment opportunities for persons with disabilities that prevent them from finding jobs at market rates. In nearly all cases, these waivers are used for sheltered workshops like MARVA. These organizations are non-profits with a mission to help persons with disabilities, not companies getting rich off of sub-minimum wage labor.

Now, I recognize that some in the disability-rights community oppose 14c. I have met with some good people who devote their lives to serving the disabled, who have this point of view. There are bills in both the House and the Senate to eliminate 14c, and in turn, likely shut down organizations like MARVA.

I'm sympathetic to their concerns, especially in rare isolated cases of abuse. And if there's a choice between a workshop job, and a suitable market job, say, a retail store, for many disabled persons, the market job would be a better option. But as the client-workers and their families told me at MARVA, they don't have this choice. They can't choose between a sheltered workshop job and a market job. It's this employment or nothing. And who can argue that the client-workers of MARVA would be better off not having this opportunity? Would that be progress? Or would that be an unintentional but tragic return to the failed and limiting policies of the past?

I encourage all of my colleagues to visit a workshop like MARVA and talk to the full-time staff and the client-workers. Talk to the family members of the client-workers. See for yourself how important these organizations are to the lives of people with disabilities who have found a place to that offers meaningful work in their own community.

MARVA and similar organizations are a true blessing to their client-workers, their families, customers, and all Arkansans. I'm committed to protecting MARVA and organizations like it from any effort to close them down. And if you want the simplest reason why, I will close by reading a Facebook post from Mike's brother: "whether it's shredding by hand outdated phone books or making ballpoint pens for area businesses, these people WANT to work and are fiercely dedicated to their jobs with pride, and they want to work in the environments where they feel sheltered, safe, and where their needs are met. God bless MARVA and may all healthy sheltered workshops survive and keep giving life and a sense of purpose to people like Mike."