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Ready and Able

by Ricci Shryock
Local companies are finding that workers with disabilities can be valuable additions to their staff.

In her nearly 10 years working as an associate greeter at Walmart in Cherry Hill, Ingrid Foster has called in sick just twice. She wants her employer to recognize her for her strengths, like her enthusiasm and near-perfect attendance, rather than the wheelchair she comes to work in every day.

“It’s not so much a disability as challenges. To me, getting around is a challenge, not a disability,” says Foster, who is a resident at Bancroft, a nonprofit that also provides her and others with rides to work, vocational training and more.

For some area employers, hiring workers with disabilities is a challenge increasingly worth pursuing.

Kathy Ross, vice president of communications at Bancroft, describes it as a “win-win” situation when the right supports are in place. “The employer typically gets a highly motivated, dependable and enthusiastic worker, and the employee gets the many advantages of employment,” she says. “Workers with disabilities also can increase a workforce’s overall morale, both through their job performance and by demonstrating the company’s commitment to a diverse workforce, as well as being a good corporate citizen.”

People with disabilities have a great deal to offer in the business world, she notes—but often they are not given opportunities to show what they can do, especially in the current job market.

According to Deborah Brown, a rehabilitation counselor with PRIDE Industries, people with disabilities are a major untapped resource. “Today, one in five Americans has a disability, and as our workforce ages, disabilities will become even more prevalent. People with disabilities represent our single largest and most diverse minority group.”

There are also many incentives for including those with disabilities in your workforce, notes Teresa Owens, a Camden-based manager at the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services within the New Jersey Department of Labor & Workforce Development. Tax credit incentives, assistance in making the workplace Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant, on-site training and long-term job coaching are all available through the state. “If the employer will hire that disabled consumer, we will enter into an on-the-job training contract, and we will pay half that person’s salary for a period of up to six months,” she says. “That’s a real savings.”

In the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, 2010, the division—funded 80 percent by the federal government and 20 percent by the state—was able to place 509 new clients with disabilities at jobs in Camden, Burlington and Gloucester counties.

The key, Owens urges, is that employers should not look for a person with or without disabilities, but rather seek out an individual who matches the required skill set.

“You’re not hiring the disability; you’re hiring the person because they do have the skills and talents that you’re looking for,” she says.

At PRIDE Industries, an organization based at Fort Dix that creates jobs for the disabled, that is one of their major focuses. Plus, according to Brown, not only do they have the skills, but they can have higher retention and job performance. “People with disabilities have equal or higher job performance ratings, higher retention rates and lower absenteeism,” she says. “Higher retention rates result in reduced recruitment and training costs, directly benefiting a business’ bottom line. Individuals with disabilities are accustomed to challenges and often possess heightened problem-solving skills, a demonstrated sense of patience and perseverance, and an enthusiasm and eagerness to succeed in the workplace.”

Denise Sellers, executive director of Haddonfield Child Care, works with Bancroft to bring aboard workers with disabilities, thereby bringing more diversity into an already varied workforce. Sellers says what’s most important is that the worker is a good fit for the particular job in question.

“We don’t really get into too much about what their specific disabilities are. We focus more on their abilities than their disabilities,” she says. “And when you find that good fit, you can enjoy that long-term relationship. We’re always looking for someone who is going to be committed.”

One employee Sellers hired through Bancroft has been with her organization for seven years. “She certainly enjoys her work and the staff enjoys working with her,” Sellers says. “She attends all the conferences and really has become a strong member of the team.”

For workers with severe disabilities, state programs take the onus off the employer. “We pay a vendor approved by the state of New Jersey to go out and work with the individual on the job and make sure they are learning, applying, and can do that job semi-independently,” Owens says. “If the employer says they’re having problems, then they can call the job coaching agency.”

Organizations like Goodwill Industries and St. John of God are among local groups that have contracted with the state for job coaching. A job coach could also offer simple modifications that might make a job more accessible, like color coding items to make inventory easier for a worker who can’t read well, or helping procure a scanner that would read bar codes aloud.

While it may take initial adjustments, the long-term payoff for both worker and employee can be immense.

“I’m very, very grateful to Bancroft and to Walmart,” Foster says, “and I’m very, very proud of myself for what I’ve accomplished.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Biz, Volume 2, Issue 1 (January, 2012).
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