The Americans with Disabilities Act and OPG

Image Description: two men who use wheelchairs sit next to President George H. W. Bush as he signs the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. The setting is in front of a series of fountains. Barbara Bush and another man are standing in the background. All pictured are wearing dark grey or black suits.

July 26, 2022 marks the 32nd Anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This legislation banned discrimination against all people with disabilities, whether diagnosed or perceived. The ADA affirms and promotes the rights of people with disabilities to ensure their ability to participate in all aspects of society.  It requires accommodations be made to ensure people with disabilities have equal access to employment, transportation, telecommunication, public spaces, and public services.  Despite the over 30 years since its passage, efforts to fully implement the mandates of the ADA continue.   

Opportunities for Positive Growth, Inc. (OPG) provides support to people with developmental disabilities and is one of the agencies to which the ADA applies both as a provider and an employer.  OPG offers supports to people in the areas of behavioral, music, and occupational therapy, employment services, and residential supports.  OPG strives to achieve inclusivity in the organization and communities it serves, both through direct support and community action.  Following are some examples of the ways OPG employees support people to exercise their rights under the ADA. 

Employment 

Title I of the ADA applies to all employers with 15 or more employees, including employment agencies and labor organizations.  It prohibits employers from discriminating against people with disabilities.  It also requires reasonable accommodations be made to allow an otherwise qualified candidate with a disability to perform the duties of a position, if requested by the person.  Unfortunately, many people with disabilities continue to have difficulty gaining and maintaining employment.   

Though every employee who provides direct support to a person may have some role to play in helping that person find and keep a job, OPG has two positions that are specifically related to employment. The first is the Employment Specialists who work to identify interests and talents, teach skills, and offer work-based support to so that the people we work with can engage in competitive, integrated employment opportunities.  The second employment specific position at OPG is the Benefits Information Network (BIN) Liaison.  The BIN Liaison works with people and families to provide the information they need to be able to work while maintaining benefits and health care coverage as needed.  The risk of losing benefits and supports is a real barrier to pursuing competitive employment for some people with disabilities, and the work of the BIN Liaison helps to minimize this risk. 

Public Spaces 

Both Title II and Title III of the ADA include protections for preventing discrimination against and ensuring facilities are accessible for people with disabilities.  Title II specifically applies to activities of state and local government, while Title III applied to privately owned businesses and nonprofit services.  Ensuring accessibility includes both removing barriers to access and making modifications to ensure access to public spaces. 

Any publicly accessible buildings constructed after 1990 are required to be ADA compliant, but there are still buildings that are difficult to access for people with mobility issues.  OPG employees across all services advocate through community partnerships and education to promote accessibility in areas still not meeting this expectation.  For example, a person’s residence may not have accessible entrances.  In that situation, an OPG employee may support the person to work with their landlord to make reasonable accommodations to the residence.  If there is an issue with a public space, OPG staff may support the person or advocate on their behalf to request modifications from the public agency.   

Transportation 

Both Title II and Title III of the ADA address issues related to transportation.  Title II applies to public transportation, like city buses, trains, and paratransit (like Medicaid funded ride services).  Title III applies to private transportation services, such as hotel shuttles, private buses, taxis, and ride share services like Uber.  None of these transportation agencies can refuse service to a person based on disability status.  They can’t require a person with a disability to use any specific service, sit in any specific area, or have an attendant to use transportation services.  They must also provide the option of priority seating and ensure that their facilities are accessible.  

Transportation remains a significant barrier for people with disabilities.  Though public and private transportation services are now more accessible, they are not available in all areas and may be limited in others.  Lack of transportation impacts a person’s ability to access the services they may need to maintain their health and participate in the life of the community. 

OPG employees offer support to find and access transportation options on a case-by-case basis.  OPG staff members also participate in community level projects, including one member who is on the Advisory Committee on Disability in the city of Fishers, IN, where efforts are being made to improve accessibility, including increased transportation options.  These efforts included a 2022 pilot program using wheelchair accessible autonomous vehicles to allow access to the Nickel Plate District and downtown area. 

This article was written by Beth Garretson, Director of Quality and Policy for OPG, and member of OPG’s Human Rights Committee.



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Michael P.

His name is Michael.

Michael P. is a Direct Support Professional with OPG .

Michael supports his brother 5 days a week.

Michael has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, sometimes referred to as Asperger’s syndrome. 

Michael has told a close group of friends and family about his diagnosis, no one else.  No one else until today.  Now, he’s telling the world. 

This is his story:

“I was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, sometimes called Asperger’s, in my early 20s (I’m now 36).  I’m still coming to terms with this.  I was previously accustomed to thinking of myself as if my depression and social anxiety were closer to the core of my identity, and it took me about a decade to become more comfortable with thinking of those mainly as indirect consequences of my life with autism, and the way it has impacted my social experience.”

Michael and I sat down for 2 beautiful hours together over coffee on Monday, April 18th. The first time Michael has talked about his diagnosis with a stranger.  We exchanged a few emails before meeting, that’s all.  You want to know what I learned about Michael?  As much as I could imagine in 2 hours.  Michael and I have the same taste in heavy metal music, Michael has been a vegetarian for 15 years, he loves his brother as much as anyone I’ve ever seen love a sibling.  He has dreams of writing and loves reading.  He cannot be defined by his diagnosis. 

Image Description: Jacob and Michael are standing in front of a coffee shop with a brick front. Michael is a white male with a shaved head and stubble facial hair. He is smiling wearing a green zip up sweater. Jacob is a white male with dark blonde hair and facial hair. Jacob is wearing a black and white striped polo shirt with red accents.

“My autism is an invisible condition for the most part.  In a way, it’s invisible even to me.  I know next to nothing of the neurology or psychology of it.  I just am who I am, with my strengths and weaknesses, my idiosyncrasies.  I’ve ‘come out’ to a handful of people, and a typical response has been to say, ‘Your diagnosis is just a word to me, and it doesn’t change how I see you.’  But occasionally someone will seem surprised or skeptical and tell me about a strange or negative stereotype that I do not fit.”

Michael told me that he has seen people online use the words “Asperger’s” and “autistic” in demeaning, insulting ways.  Michael told me that he wonders about putting his face on that, and has tried to reduce his social media presence. 

“I think people usually don’t see me as neurodivergent; they probably see me as ‘odd’ or ‘offbeat’ or peculiar, in ways that are hard to pin down.  I’ve had people (children and rude adults) basically ask me point blank to explain why my voice and mannerisms are what they are: I seem a little flat and emotionless, or nervously self-concsious, or depressed and disengaged.  And although these impressions of me are sometimes accurate, they also leave out something important, which I haven’t completely figured out- but it’s probably where my autism comes in. I sense that I’m on a slightly different wavelength from most people, and have to struggle more to fit in, to seem comfortable with and attentive to the same things [as others].”

Here is how Michael describes his experience with OPG: “In 2015, my family and I worked out an arrangement with OPG that allows me to be a paid support person for my brother, while the two of us share our own living space. The arrangement has benefited all of us, and OPG deserves credit for its willingness to try something a bit unconventional. OPG has helped my brother realize his dream of living more independently, and in the process, OPG has helped me along in my pursuit of satisfying work, while simultaneously bringing greater peace of mind to our family. I consider myself extremely fortunate.”

He sums up our conversations this way: “If I could somehow trade perspectives with a neurotypical person, so that they think and feel as I do, and vice-versa, I’m sure that each of us would find the experience freeing and illuminating in some ways but cramping and painful in others.  But this can be said of any two human beings. ‘Different’ doesn’t have to mean worse or better in some absolute way.”

If I could sum up our conversations, I would echo “different doesn’t have to mean worse or better in some absolute way.”

His name is Michael. 



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The Holidays Traditionally for the OPG Family

As the evenings draw in far too soon, and the temperature drops far too quickly, seasonal customs begin for every facet of the holiday season. While a single tear sheds for the long-abandoned shorts hanging sadly in the closet, the frosted windows and flurries of snow can mean only one thing… the holidays are coming.

Spirits are on high; families reunite, friends get merry, and holiday traditions are in full swing. Whether it’s Christmas or Kwanzaa, Hanukkah or Boxing Day, the holidays are the perfect remedy for the winter blues. No matter which celebration means something to you, our annual traditions are often just as meaningful to us as the holidays themselves.

For OPG self-advocate, Abby Love, Christmas is her favorite holiday. “I like getting presents, listening to Christmas music, and seeing family,” she tells me. For Abby, the holidays are a local affair, with her family coming over to celebrate an Indy Christmas. “We decorate our house and my aunt and uncle come to us every year.”

Abby Love, OPG Self-Advocate

Taking part in a game of holiday word association will undoubtedly garner one result in particular: food. Along with her mom, Abby bakes delicious Christmas cookies each year, providing the energy she needs for one of her favorite holiday traditions: playing Just Dance on the Wii with her sisters and cousins.

As Abby can attest, tasty treats are the backbone to any holiday festivity. For Behavior Support Specialist, Jen Elia, Potato Latkes and Sufganiyot (a traditional Hanukkah doughnut), is the menu of choice. This year, Jen’s holiday traditions will also be incorporated at her daughter’s school holiday program. “She’ll be singing Christmas songs with everybody and I wanted them to include one Hanukkah song, which they were happy to do. I’m excited to see which one they’ve chosen.”

One of her favorite times of year, Jen’s family celebrations are mostly on the first night of Hanukkah, but the traditional family trip to Puerto Rico is the highlight of the season. “This year, because of what’s going on, we’re not able to go. But we’re still going to celebrate all together in Indiana – my mother recently moved here from New York, and my sister and her family as well.”

While the holidays are meaningful for a plethora of individualized reasons, time is something not even Bilbo Baggins is immune to; affecting what we associate the holidays with as the years fall away. Whether you’re waking up at 6am and jumping on your parents’ bed, or being woken up at 6am by energy levels which far exceed your own, the holidays remain special even when the reasons change.

Administrative Assistant, Laura Boggs, is seeing the holidays a little differently this year. “As my brother, sister, and I are getting older, I’m seeing for the first time that we’re not going to be around forever and I want to spend more time with them,” she pauses. “It’d be nice to think that Christmas could bring people back together – permanently, and not just for Christmas.”

Laura remembers a time when she was a teenager in Frankfort, Indiana, walking through the snow at the downtown square. “Business people would decorate their office windows. This one evening, Christmas songs were being played,” she recalls. “I always think of that particular evening when the holidays come around.”

Now a grandmother living with her daughter’s family, holiday traditions are more important than ever for Laura. “It’s waking up Christmas morning and hearing the kids shout “it’s Christmas, it’s Christmas!”,” she joyfully demonstrates. And no matter how many birthdays come and go, some things never change: “I even love to see when I get my daughter something that I know she wants. We all get older, but she’s still my daughter.”

While many cite that the joy of the holidays comes from the love and laughter shared with family, for some, the true meaning behind the holidays is giving. Of course, presents are a common-place during the Yuletide season, but giving comes in a great many number of forms for a great many number of people.


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Cyrus Kungu, Direct Support Professional

Cyrus Kungu, a Direct Support Professional, was born and raised in Kenya – moving to the United States back in 2009. During his upbringing in Africa, he spent the holidays celebrating Christmas with his family and community. For Cyrus, it was custom to open presents the day after Christmas (Boxing Day), with the former being reserved for another tradition entirely.

“When I was in Africa, I used to go to Church in the morning, and then after the service I would go into the community to visit the poor and give the little I had to them,” Cyrus explains. “When I celebrate Christmas, I always think about caring for others. When I spend my Christmas helping another person make their life better, I feel good about it.”

Cyrus grew up with very little, but his family always made sure to celebrate Christmas when many people in his poverty-stricken community did not. Since moving to America by himself, he has not only become an exceptional DSP, but continues to send money back to his community each year during the holidays, helping them in any way he can. Thankfully, Cyrus’ selfless nature was rewarded a few years ago when his family was finally able to move to the States to be with him.

Regardless of your background, traditions, or which cultural festival you celebrate, the holidays is a distinctly special time of year. Whether you’re embracing family you haven’t seen in years, eating your weight in ham, or hurriedly wrapping presents before the kids get home from school, the holidays provide memories that we cherish for the rest of our lives.

“I don’t give because I have, but because I know what it’s like not to have anything.” 
– Cyrus Kungu

Happy Holidays! ​




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What Thanksgiving Means to Us

Whether it’s Halloween or Thanksgiving, Christmas or Hanukkah, fall through winter houses a number of celebrated holidays that frequently fight for the limelight when deciding upon a personal favorite. Spooky vs. Santa, turkey vs. ham – no matter your preference, the Holidays mean so much to so many.

While the inception of each holiday began with a specific purpose, over time, individuals from across the United States have gleaned their own personal meaning behind each occasion. This is what makes Thanksgiving a special celebration: the nature of being thankful is uniquely personal for everyone around the dinner table, and can take on a profound new meaning each and every year.

​OPG self-advocate, Andrew Lyons, tells me how he always looks forward to Thanksgiving. “I like being with friends, and the laughter with family.” Thanksgiving usually consists of a more modest gathering for Andrew, but he recalls a memory from many years ago that he thinks back on fondly at this time of year. “We went to my great aunt and uncle’s house. I remember seeing everyone and smiling.”

As Andrew’s mind casts itself over all the “flavorful food” he enjoys at Thanksgiving, he tells me that there are three things he’s truly thankful for this year: “good health, fun with friends, and making memories.” This sentiment was echoed by fellow OPG self-advocate, Jessica Steuterman, who told me that what means the most to her at Thanksgiving is her mom and dad… and the food.

​For many, Thanksgiving brings with it a number of family traditions. “I like to decorate pumpkins,” Jessica says with a smile. For others, like Andrew, it’s different every year. However, it becomes clear when talking about holiday traditions that the traditions themselves embody the true meaning behind the occasion; when asked about her favorite part of Thanksgiving, Jessica takes a brief pause and says, “I like to give out hugs every year.”

​Traditions come in many forms. For Quality Enhancement Specialist, Sherry Vickrey, it involves all of her family gathering on the floor and spreading the newspaper out to look at the ads, along with pre-Christmas festivities. “Before we eat we have to write five things we want for Christmas in the Christmas book. We’re not allowed to eat until we do,” she laughs. “It also means I get to put up my Christmas tree the next day.”

Of course, when the last drop of sentiment has been drunk, there’s the copious amount of delicious food. “Every year I have to make green bean casserole, if I don’t I’m not allowed to come to Thanksgiving,” Sherry tells me – with Jessica attesting to the green bean deliciousness being a personal favorite of hers also. “It’s the one time of year my whole family get together. We spend the whole day cooking, eating and laughing.”

For Andy Griffin, another OPG self-advocate, Thanksgiving is all about games. “I watch football with my family. We play card games too.” For Andy, he’s especially thankful for the self-sufficiency OPG has helped him achieve. “I am more independent. And I’m looking for a new job – I have a new job coach,” he expresses enthusiastically.

As businesses shutdown, cars line the roads, and family members embrace each other with open-arms, the importance of Thanksgiving becomes abundantly clear. Sherry tells me how this is her first Thanksgiving with her new husband, and reflects on what the holiday means to her most of all. “Since my dad passed away two years ago and my mom got cancer, I’m just especially thankful that she’s here for Thanksgiving.”

While the story of the original Thanksgiving is frequently misconstrued, the core message remains a constant. The first Thanksgiving was indeed very different from the modern-day celebration. But as families and friends gather to eat food, laugh, and give thanks, we discover a common ground with the Pilgrims of 1621: we all have something or someone in life to be thankful for.

Happy Thanksgiving!



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Dan Kahl: An ESOP Interview

For 15 years, Dan Kahl has been serving Opportunities for Positive Growth, Inc. as its Chief Operating Officer. Alongside his wife and CEO, Gail Kahl, the duo has paved the way for how companies treat individuals with intellectual disabilities across the state of Indiana and beyond.

In 2010, Dan and Gail handed OPG over to their employees by turning the company into an ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan). Since that time, qualified participants have been accruing stock due to their personal stake in the company. Further details of which can be found here.

I sat down with Dan to discuss his thought process behind turning OPG into an ESOP, the changes he’s witnessed over the years, and where he hopes the company goes in the future.

When and why did you join OPG?

My first day was in October 2002. I was looking for a new job and Gail talked me into joining the company. At the time, I really disliked my job. I looked at OPG as a cool way to own my own business and be an entrepreneur, and so I started doing both jobs. I’d come home at 5.30pm and work until midnight on the other job. Finally, a few months later, I gave my 2 weeks’ notice, scared to death, and joined OPG. It was a rough 6 months. 

Why did you choose to make OPG an ESOP?

Dan Kahl, Chief Operating Officer

Originally our board of directors only consisted of Gail and I, our two sons, and our attorney – who in 2006, started pushing us towards our succession plan. It came down to three options: we could sell it to somebody in the company, we could list it and sell it to the highest bidder, or we could go to an ESOP. It was very costly and policy heavy, but we looked at everything and that’s the route we decided to go.

We kept it secret from March 2010 until October 2010. It was a great opportunity for our employees, who we feel a lot of loyalty to; Gail and I built the company into what it is, but really, it’s our employees that do the job day-in day-out, so we thought it was a good fit.

Did you have any reservations about turning the company into an ESOP?

Oh yeah: the audits, the high cost. Obviously, it was money well spent, but it was at a time when the Department of Labor was very anti-ESOP. All ESOPs after the first year get a DoL audit, and ours went on for 44 months. After all that, I might have told you I don’t know if I would have done it again – it was brutal, the most difficult thing I’ve ever gone through in my business career. We weren’t being treated fairly. 

Since turning OPG into an ESOP, have you seen any significant change within the company and the people? 

I think it’s turned more positive. We have 133 plan participants in the ESOP, and those 133 people hold well over $1 million worth of stock. I think it encourages everybody to go out and do their job the best they can day-in and day-out – and if that’s what we do, we’ll be successful. 

The other thing that’s really important: our valuation has increased dramatically since 2010. It’s gone up by more than 200%. I think that the employees who receive their statements every year have come to realize that the money is real – they’ve got a really good appreciation of it. All you’re doing is getting a retirement income just for showing up to work. It doesn’t cost you anything. What a great deal.

What would you say are the key benefits for being an ESOP?

I think it creates a culture of creativity, of fiscal responsibility, pride, goal achievement, and of family. You really can’t buy that… you have to create it. It’s gratifying and absolutely worthwhile. 

What is the single most significant selling point of working for an ESOP company?

You’ll have a nice pile of retirement money that you can keep building on, but you have to be in it for the long run. That’s another reason why Gail and I decided to go the ESOP route; Gail’s first employee is still with her after 19 years. We recently conducted a study and found that the turnover rate for ESOP participants over a 5-year period is just 3%. It’s amazing. 

I’ve been shocked at the number of young people who really don’t take savings for granted. We have had young people leave the company who have decided to roll their investment into another qualifying plan, which tells me that they understand you have to start saving early for retirement. It’s very important. And it’s tax free!

As your retirement approaches, how does your succession plan tie into ESOP?

We decided to do 100% transfer of the ownership to ESOP – a lot of companies start out at 20%. When we leave we want the company to be in good fiscal shape, have leaders in place that will run OPG like Gail and I have, and I want to look at the ESOP as being healthy and solvent. 

One of the things that we’ve done is that if there’s something we don’t know, I can pick the phone up and call our trustee, I can call our valuation firm, I can call our legal office, and have an answer the same day. We’re very lucky to have incredible partnerships with the professionals that provide us services.

Where do you hope ESOP takes OPG in the future?

We’re still in our infancy as an ESOP and to say that we’ve got 133 people holding over a million dollars’ worth of stock is unbelievable. And if the company keeps performing as it has been there’s no reason why it couldn’t increase five-fold, ten-fold, who knows. So that’s pretty exciting.  

We have a lot of people in that 30 to 40-year-old range, so I’d like to come back in 20 years and watch those guys on their last day of work, signing off on their paperwork to get their stock and see how much they’ve got in their account. It’ll be incredible.



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