Gregory Miller has been working on behalf of people with disabilities for nearly his entire adult life.
It started his senior year at Shippensburg University when Miller was approached by Dr. Donald Rabush about a nonprofit that he was starting in Westminster to support people with disabilities. The company, Target Community & Educational Services Inc., which opened new homes for people with disabilities who were coming out of state centers, was a result of a partnership with Western Maryland College (now McDaniel College).
“My wife [Terri] and I opened the first home for children in Maryland, where we supported three children with significant disabilities,” he said. “In addition to working, part of the partnership involved pursuing our master’s degrees as well. I very quickly realized this would be a huge part of my life’s work.”
Miller’s work has grown to his current role as president and chief executive officer of Penn-Mar Human Services, a company with more than 500 employees that provides direct services to more than 400 people each year. Additionally, more than 1,000 receive Low Intensity Support Services (LISS) through Penn-Mar.
As the country marks Disability Pride Month in July, Miller wants people to know a few things about those with disabilities, a community he prides himself on working with and advocating for.
“The work we do each day at Penn-Mar is vital in supporting and promoting people with disabilities in making choices for themselves that help to create their best life,” said Miller, a 60-year-old Westminster resident. “I am involved in advocacy and the advancement of public policy which increases opportunities for people with disabilities to be fully included and have a sense of belonging in our local communities.”
As head of the company, Miller is excited about its new Belonging Initiative, an internal diversity campaign that he believes will further strengthen understanding and create an environment where everyone feels more welcome, heard, and supported.
“The driving idea behind it is to capture all the collective life experiences our team members have, and to support each person in bringing these diverse experiences, ideas and dreams to work each day,” he said. “Our focus has been on how we can improve our workplace so all leaders and managers are better connected to all team members.”
The goal for the company is to have an inclusive and dynamic culture where mission is “truly king,” Miller said.
The company formed a partnership with Dr. Martin Davidson from the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, who has guided the company through an intense three-step process: research and investigation, use of data to create discussions, and a focus on “practical, actionable steps.”
“We are encouraging all team members to participate as we all strive to strengthen our culture,” Miller said. “By doing so we believe we can continue to deliver on our brand promise to ‘Live Your Legacy’ every day for all team members.”
The Baltimore Banner recently asked Miller a series of questions about his longtime work with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Describe a person with intellectual and developmental disabilities?
There is no comprehensive way to describe a person with intellectual disabilities, other than to say they are just a person like anyone else. So, if you asked me to describe the hundreds of people I know who have intellectual disabilities, I would have to give you hundreds of individual answers. It would kind of be like me trying to describe a person named Greg.
I could, however, describe some of the challenges people with intellectual disabilities face, and that list would be significant. It would probably start with some misunderstandings that people with disabilities are so different, when the truth is they want the same things out of life that any reader of this article wants. Good friends, a good job, someone to care for and love, a strong social network and being accepted for who they are as a person. People with disabilities are often forced to work much harder in their lives to achieve these things.
How did the Americans with Disabilities Act, which President George H.W. Bush signed in 1990, break down barriers for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities?
It was a truly landmark legislation. I think the initial impact of the ADA was much more significant for individuals with physical disabilities than for those with intellectual or developmental disabilities. I believe our culture better understood that a person of relatively neurotypical intellectual abilities, who happened to have a physical disability, should never be seen or treated as “less.” For those with intellectual disabilities, the journey has been a bit longer and filled with many roadblocks. While the ADA is great public policy, only the changing of hearts and minds truly brings about fundamental advances. ADA may have been a catalyst for deeper conversations, and a key moment in advancing civil rights for people with disabilities, but true inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities in the mainstream of our society is still a work in progress, and much of the advancement happens one person at a time.
What is the biggest fight this community faces in 2023?
While much could be said about reimagining the future for people with disabilities through innovation and advancements in technology, the biggest challenge in supporting people right now is the workforce labor market. People with disabilities are often able to pursue lives of their choosing in part due to the support of human service programs. Because funding for these services is highly dependent on federal and state resources, the industry that supports individuals with intellectual disabilities has historically been built on the backs of low-wage earners at the mercy of our legislators and governors. The current system for supporting people with disabilities is very fragile, with high turnover and poor retention. Consequently, our current workforce challenges are the worst in history. This always has a negative effect on the quality of services being provided.
What is the biggest misconception the public makes about people with intellectual and developmental disabilities?
Some see people with intellectual disabilities as eternal children. Others see them as people that need to be taken care of. While much progress has been made in eliminating prejudices, there are still some people that are uncomfortable with anyone they deem as “different.” I am always encouraged when I hear direct testimony from business owners about the value people we support have brought to their workplace and the positive effects on other employees. The key to all these things is just exposure and understanding. People tend to fear that which they do not understand, and when people get to know someone with a disability, it tends to tear down some of those misconceptions.
How does society fully integrate people with intellectual disabilities?
I believe it starts with valuing life in the mosaic of our societies in which we live. Just as many diverse groups have long and painful histories of being separated, singled out or treated inhumanely, people with disabilities have experienced that as well. I believe that true inclusion will not occur until there is a sense of belonging. Integration allows you to be somewhere, but what is your experience when you get there? If you do not feel like you belong and are welcomed, why would you stay? While we still have a long way to go in developing truly inclusive communities that are welcoming to people with disabilities, I must also celebrate the amazing steps I have seen in my career in how advances have, and continue to, occur.
What are some ways to better educate oneself about intellectual and developmental disabilities?
There are unending educational resources about intellectual disabilities online. But from personal experience, I would suggest the best way to have a better understanding of intellectual disabilities would be to intentionally expand your social circle to include those with disabilities and their families. I have been doing this work for almost 40 years, and whenever I spend time with a person with an intellectual disability, I learn something new — something new about them, something new about myself, and something new about the world in which we live.
Do you recommend any books, movies, articles?
As an avid reader I have numerous books I would recommend, but they are not about intellectual disabilities. As a Christian, I believe the Bible tells us all we need to know regarding how we are to love and treat others — all others. For my professional work, I love Steven Covey’s “[The] 7 Habits [of Highly Effective People],” Henry Cloud’s “Necessary Endings,” and I am currently obsessing over Matthew Kelly’s book, “The Culture Solution.”
How should we celebrate Disability Pride Month?
I must confess I am not big on celebration months. I would instead encourage readers to consider building relationships with people with intellectual disabilities as part of an ongoing desire to celebrate the value of expanding relationships with those they may never have included in their circle of influence before.