Disabled community seeks to fill gap
By Ann Craig-Cinnamon
Photos by John Cinnamon
The help wanted sign is as prevalent as a welcome sign at many businesses in Hamilton County these days. The unemployment rate is so low that the county is considered to be at full employment, leaving business owners scrambling to find workers.
Now, consider that the unemployment and underemployment rate for people with disabilities in Hamilton County is extremely high and it seems like you might have found a solution for businesses needing workers as well as for those with disabilities that want to work.
There are organizations dedicated to helping those with disabilities find work, such as Opportunities for Positive Growth, Inc. Within Hamilton Southeastern Schools there is an office that helps students with disabilities find jobs as they transition out of school
What was missing, however, was a unified effort to bring together these organizations that work with the disabled and the businesses who might want to employ them.
Fishers City Councilwoman Cecilia Coble came up with the idea of forming the Fishers Disability Inclusion in the Workplace Business Networking Group. She describes the goal of the group, which meets bi-monthly, as providing a comfortable setting for employers to share best practices, learn more about accommodations, ask questions, share challenges, and connect with providers that can help with job training and support.
“Employers can share if they have employment needs that could be filled by capable individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities. Providers can identify individuals whom could fill those positions,” says Coble, who has a daughter with autism and cognitive delays. "When Crysta ages out of high school, I would like to see her have options for employment in Fishers.” Coble says students age out of high school at the age of 22. "Parents want their kids with disabilities doing something meaningful like being employed doing jobs they are capable of performing. Seventy percent of individuals with disabilities are unemployed. This is an important issue and I want to change this statistic in Fishers."
This idea is catching on around Hamilton County. Coble has been assisting Carmel Councilwoman Laura Campbell in starting a similar networking group in Carmel called the Carmel Advisory Committee on Disability.
Chrissy Pogue, a Transition Specialist with Hamilton Southeastern Schools, co-chairs the Fishers networking group with Michelle Steltz, the Executive Director of Finance and Operations for Opportunities For Positive Growth, Inc. Pogue works with students with cognitive and physical disabilities, those with mild to moderate cognitive disability, and students on the autism spectrum, to find jobs.
She says the networking group allows employers to ask questions they might normally be afraid to ask, such as abilities and skill sets and transforming work space to accommodate them. She thinks it shows inclusivity within the city. “The fact that they have a committee that focuses just on employment I think shows how important a concept this is for the city to be aware of,” she says adding that it is helping to make connections that weren’t being made.
Steltz says this networking group provides a chance to share success stories, challenges and resources with other business peers and she believes the group is important because business owners are already stretched with the demands of running a business in a growing community. “Being able to stop and seek out these connections on your own is hard when you have a business to run. Hiring and training new employees takes time, and we hope by sharing resources and success stories they are able to be more open to expanding their workforce options,” says Steltz.
She uses the example of a company that needs to find software that converts speech to text in a business setting. Within the networking group they might be able to find another company that has success with a known product and might get to see it in action before making the investment.
Blastmedia and Statwax founder Kelly Hendricks is a member of the Disability Inclusion in the Workplace Business Networking Group and is extremely happy with the two employees with disabilities that her companies have hired. “We joined because we are an advocate of the group's mission. We believe that by focusing on inclusion of folks with disabilities, we will not only improve our businesses and communities, but open up opportunities to folks that may not have had them previously,” she says. “We wanted to be able to network with other businesses to let them know how easy it is to diversify their workforce.”
Hendricks says the addition of team members with disabilities to her company has had a very positive impact on both her teams and the clients they serve. “These folks bring perspectives that we didn't previously have in our businesses, which enriches the internal and external teams we work with. We can't be the best business and community partners we can be without a variety of voices in our organizations, and our employees with disabilities have helped us to continue to grow in multiple ways.”
On the other side of the issue are those with disabilities. Vicki Homan’s daughter Jenny, who is 22 years old and has a cognitive disability, went through the HSE and Opportunities for Positive Growth programs and landed a job in Food Services at IU Health Saxony.
“IU Health recognizes the value of hiring and promoting people with disabilities and special needs,” explains Tamarah Brownlee, vice president of human resources at IU Health Saxony, North, Tipton and West hospitals. “We believe our differences make us stronger and are committed to recruiting a workforce that reflects the diverse patients we serve.”
Vicki Homan says working has helped Jenny’s well-being. “With Jenny working she is creating her own path and moving forward to produce a meaningful career and life for herself. She’s putting together the pieces for independence just like our other kids. We just want to see Jenny successful and happy,” she says and adds that the programs Jenny went through really helped her family. “It’s just made everything a lot easier going through these organizations.”
Jenny says she has fun working. “Yes, I enjoy my job because I get to deliver the trays to patients and get to talk to them,” she says. “I like delivering to them. Sometimes they talk to you. They just need someone to talk to.”