Initiatives helps people with disabilities find jobs

Last updated on April 20th, 2022 at 02:46 am

While the slow economic recovery has magnified the the job search struggle for Wisconsin’s unemployed residents, the struggle to find work for people with disabilities has long been compounded by additional barriers.

Unemployment among adults with disabilities in Wisconsin stands at 25.8 percent, according to 2011 statistics from the most recent American Community Survey referenced by the Department of Workforce Development.

One of the most significant forces behind this figure is the stigma long attached to people with disabilities and the widespread misconception that they are not capable of working as productively as other employees. People with disabilities may turn to disability services and other organizations to help them find jobs.

“Milwaukee historically has had an idea of who is employable,” said Jerry Roberts, a program officer at the Helen Bader Foundation in Milwaukee.

To bolster workforce development for people facing strict employment barriers and open up opportunities for them to contribute to society, the Helen Bader Foundation awarded 20 Milwaukee-area workforce development organizations $855,000 in funding earlier this year. Of those 20 organizations, 15 specifically serve unemployed populations that are often overlooked, including people with disabilities.

When analyzing the spectrum of people within the labor pool, certain people who live in certain zip codes, who belong to particular racial groups and who have disabilities aren’t viewed as “employable,” Roberts said.
“I think it’s a perception issue,” said Roberts, who manages the Helen Bader Foundation’s efforts surrounding workforce development.

Danna Rhinehart, disability resource coordinator at the Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board, echoes the persistence of this stigma and the need to ensure that people with disabilities are included in the state’s mainstream workforce.

“That’s always been an issue because people get judged on their disability solely,” Rhinehart said.

Other employment barriers unique to people with special needs include mobility issues in terms of transportation to and from work as well as flexible and accessible work environments.

“It’s a matter of making sure we find the right accommodations,” Roberts said.

And the struggling economy certainly hasn’t helped individuals with disabilities find jobs as many companies continue to use smaller workforces.

Oftentimes, job candidates with disabilities are competing against others who may have more experience than they do, Rhinehart said, and employers choose who they want.

Part of Rhinehart’s job at the Workforce Investment Board, a public/private agency collaborating with business and community stakeholders to build a strong workforce development system, involves teaming up with community partners that provide additional career services.

One of those partners, the Milwaukee Center for Independence (MCFI), provides customized recruitment, job training and job placement services to more than 400 people with special needs each year.

MCFI structures its employment services into four phases – pre-vocational, discovery, training and placement – with an ultimate goal to successfully place clients in jobs that they’re able to retain.

The phases cover everything from soft skills training and job shadowing to resume writing, mock interviewing, on-the-job training and one-on-one job coaching.

“So much of what we do is so individualized,” said Jackie Wells, vice president of employment services at the nonprofit. “It’s really about getting to know that individual employer and the client to make that match.”

One of MCFI’s clients, Abdul Akinpelu, a resident of Milwaukee, secured a cleaning position with The Bartolotta Restaurants’ NorthPoint Custard stand at Bradford Beach in May 2012 and began working for Joey Gerard’s in Greendale last August.

In placing clients like Akinpelu, MCFI sends job coaches with help them learn their specific responsibilities onsite and adjust to their new work environment.

“The nice thing about working with MCFI is that they’re not just looking to place people that have disabilities, but they’re looking to place people with disabilities that they have trained and provide valuable skills for our business,” said Chris Adams, multi-unit director at Joey Gerard’s and at The Bartolotta Restaurants’ Harbor House.

Akinpelu, who works between 12 and 15 hours each week, handles everything from dusting and floor cleaning to washing dishes, wiping down seating and cleaning bathrooms.

“I’m just a hard worker,” Akinpelu said. “I just love to work.”

The Workforce Investment Board also partners with IndependenceFirst, a Milwaukee-based nonprofit organization providing services and resources to people with special needs. Within the nonprofit’s employment services, which cater to a variety of industries, is the Ability Connection, a mentorship and job placement program focused on information technology (IT).

Ability Connection, which currently works with 19 students, is composed of monthly training sessions that cover training on soft skills, resume writing and interviewing as well as refreshers on technology skills. The program also relies on IT professionals from organizations like Wisconsin Energy Corp., ManpowerGroup, Goodwill Industries and Marquette University to mentor its students one on one.

In addition to mentoring students, volunteers from the business community can serve on the program’s Business Advisory Committee, which coordinates many of the program’s skill building and job placement efforts through four sub-committees specializing in job readiness, placement, marketing and resource development, and assessment.
The goal to place students in IT jobs and internships is met with the challenge of a very saturated market that demands first-hand experience on top of formal education, said Amber Anderson, Ability Connection employment consultant.

But overcoming that challenge and successfully placing a student in a job or internship can prove to be transformational for an individual.

“They’re able to contribute to society, and so many of them want to be able to do that so just being able to and (having) that benefit, that’s enough right there,” Anderson said.

Beyond Vision was one of the Helen Bader Foundation’s grant recipients. The nonprofit organization belongs to a national network, the National Industries for the Blind, and generates revenue to sustain its operations through manufacturing and administrative services.

President and chief executive officer Jim Kerlin describes Beyond Vision’s model as a social enterprise, providing employment to people who are visually impaired. At its Milwaukee headquarters, it has a staff of about 50 who mostly work full time.

The nonprofit organization employs blind people in both manufacturing and administration. Within its manufacturing branch, it has an assembly and packing service in which it completes the assembly of engine parts for Briggs & Stratton and the assembly and packaging of after-market parts for Harley-Davidson. The organization also runs a machining service division.

In administration, it staffs a call center with employees who make inbound and outbound calls for contracted companies. For example, Beyond Vision call center employees are currently participating in a secret shopper program in the hospitality industry, calling various hotels across the country and scoring their customer service. A separate department within administration is responsible for selling office supplies to both nonprofit and for-profit entities, including the federal government.

“(People with disabilities are) great employees if they’re simply given the tools and the training and the opportunity,” Kerlin said. “They’re not looking for a handout. They’re looking for a hand up. They’re looking for a chance.”
The Helen Bader Foundation also donated a portion of the $855,000 grant to the United Cerebral Palsy of Southeastern Wisconsin (UCP), which offers a full menu of job preparation and skills development services to people with cognitive, physical, mental health and injury-related disabilities.

According to Joe Hapka, assistant director of employment services at UCP, a lot of potential employers have concerns that in hiring people with disabilities, they will have to invest in costly workplace accommodations, such as new equipment. In Hapka’s experience, the majority of workplace accommodations cost less than $50.

This misconception, along with any fear and hesitation on the part of employers to hire people with disabilities, can be dispelled with simple education.

“Education, information and experience just kind of blast those away,” Hapka said.

Educating employers on the benefits of hiring people with special needs, from boosting their own confidence to adding dependable, enthusiastic team members to a staff, is key in making a dent in the unemployment rate, according to Rhinehart.

“This is a hidden workforce that employers are not taking advantage of, and they are striving to be the best that they can be and they want the same quality of life that everyone else does,” Rhinehart said.


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