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Ability Focused: Job-training program develops work skills for those with disabilities

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Developmental Center of the Ozarks employees Donnie Curran and Olive Henopp were hard at work on a recent Friday afternoon, bussing tables and cleaning up in a packed cafeteria at Cox South Hospital.

It’s part of the work routine the two have followed for months as part of a job-training program in place at CoxHealth. Curran and Henopp, who both have intellectual disabilities, are contracted to work at the hospital through the nonprofit organization.

Their employment among 11,700 other workers in the health care system is the result of a DCO-managed program in place with CoxHealth since 2013. It’s funded through the Missouri Department of Mental Health, and participants must receive Medicaid and be eligible for the state agency’s services, said Emily Smasal, employment program coordinator with DCO.

“Some individuals with disabilities may need some extra training or experience under their belt before jumping into the competitive workforce,” she said. “We have this program set up here to get them that needed training and experience.”

Work by agencies, such as DCO, is intended to reduce a high jobless rate for people with disabilities. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the unemployment rate for those with disabilities at 8% in 2018, compared with 3.7% for those without disabilities.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 25.6% of adults in the United States have some type of disability. In Missouri, that percentage increases to 29.1%.

Breaking down barriers
Overcoming misconceptions from some employers about hiring people with disabilities is still a challenge, Smasal said.

“A barrier we face is the stigma associated around folks with disabilities,” she said.

However, not everyone with a disability has a cognitive issue, she said, pointing to unseen mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety. Others are dealing with alcohol and substance abuse issues.

“Breaking down that stigma, that barrier, has been a challenge,” Smasal said.

At Cox South, six employees are working through the DCO’s job-training service in the hospital’s cafeteria, bakery and kitchen. The employees, who start out at minimum wage, work either two or three days a week in the program, spanning a six-12 months. At the end of that time, DCO officials expect the individual to be ready to start seeking a job at CoxHealth or elsewhere.

The nonprofit provides support for its clients in the job search, Smasal said, citing resume development, job application help and interview skill tips. Participants in the referral-based program work with DCO employment specialists and the services are funded through Vocational Rehabilitation, part of the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Lisa Rowland has worked as a job coach with DCO for the entire time the nonprofit has contracted with CoxHealth.

“It was just a good fit for both of us,” she said.

Smasal agreed.

“When developing the worksite, we just wanted it to be inclusive and a supportive work environment that has job tasks that a lot of people are able to do,” Smasal said.

Be accommodating
Andrew Hedgpeth, CoxHealth’s vice president of human resources, estimated approximately 20% of the company’s workforce has some kind of disability. His department has developed a policy for people with disabilities and staff members regularly review requests from individuals to provide reasonable accommodations.

The policy is designed for qualified applicants or employees with a disability so that the individual is able to enjoy equal opportunity in the job application process, perform essential functions of a position and receive equal benefits and privileges of employment the same as employees without disabilities, Hedgpeth said.

“We pride ourselves on those private conversations with individuals to find out how we can help them do their best work,” he said. “Everybody is looking for a source of competitive advantage. We work very well with the leaders of our organization to look for talent. When you have a policy like this, it gives you flexibility to meet their needs.”

Meeting needs of those with disabilities has been a focus of Julia Holmes, deputy compliance officer at Missouri State University, for most of her three-decade career.

She came to MSU in January after working in similar roles at Ozarks Technical Community College for 29 years, most recently as its director of equity and compliance.

“It’s all about making sure people with disabilities are included to the fullest extent possible,” she said, “and that they are not discriminated against because of a disabling characteristic.”

Holmes was a guest speaker Oct. 16 at the fifth annual EmployAbility Summit in Springfield, organized by the Missouri Job Center. She said some employers have the misconception that it will by costly to accommodate requests from those with disabilities. Not so at MSU, Holmes said.

Citing data from the university, she said this year, the average cost of accommodating requests from employees was $175.21. Holmes said she’s worked to provide accommodations for 28 faculty and staff since July 1.

With the current low national unemployment rate – at 3.5% in September, according to the BLS – companies need to look beyond the traditional employees for work, Holmes said. Hiring professionals should be empowered and encouraged to look for those with disabilities when considering adding people to the workforce.

“Not just compliant and checking the box for standards, but trying to develop a spirit of inclusion in the workplace,” she said.

For Hedgpeth, it can be a competitive advantage.

“It’s broadening your perspective on what talent is,” he said. “We prefer to focus on abilities and not call out disabilities. It’s a mindset. Everyone wants meaningful work and our mission is deeply rooted in meaningful work and trying to help the community.”

Smasal and Rowland have seen that meaningful work with their clients firsthand at Cox South. They noted employees like Curran and Henopp are dispelling myths of what those with disabilities can and can’t do.

“With our crew being here, they’ve opened up the eyes to a lot of people that do come in here,” Rowland said. “People are amazed.”

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