Whether it’s businesses seeking to fill their open positions or a better recognition that people with disabilities have much to offer, more employers are hiring people with disabilities to fill their jobs.
That’s something that doesn’t surprise Sarah Villenauve, human resource manager at Festival Foods in De Pere. The company has long hired people with disabilities, calling it one of the company’s passions.
“It gives these individuals an opportunity to gain work experience and showcase their talents such as guest engagement, dedication and commitment to the organization,” she says. “These individuals create such close relationships with not only other associates but our guests as well — in other terms, they can instantly put others in a great mood.”
Festival Foods works closely with Syble Hopp School in De Pere to find many such employees. The school is one of only two in the state exclusively serving students with intellectual, physical and other disabilities. For more than 30 years, it has offered a work program, and this year it includes 23 community partners representing several industries, ranging from retail and food service to manufacturing and warehousing.
“It’s part of our school curriculum. It’s community-based instruction,” says Bridget Clancy, community work coordinator for Syble Hopp. At school, the students learn the importance of being on time, dressing appropriately for the job and being prepared for the worksite.
Clancy also surveys the community to create ideal fits. “We match the student with the needs of the company,” she says. “We go in and ask and see what (the company’s) needs are and see the abilities of our students.”
Festival is just one such job site. Many Syble Hopp students also either work or volunteer at local nonprofits, including the De Pere Community Center, the Special Olympics office, St. Vincent de Paul or the county’s Aging and Disability Resource Center.
Syble Hopp serves students until age 21. As part of the program, students become employees or volunteers at the respective organizations, with most earning minimum wage. The school and employer work together to navigate school schedules and transportation needs. Some students work independently with periodic visits from job coaches, while others have staff supervision onsite.
“It’s amazing what these kids can do; they get a lot of good training,” says Kim VanDenLangenberg, Syble Hopp’s community work coordinator.
Syble Hopp students also have worked at Goodwill, another organization actively serving the needs of those with disabilities.
“The whole Goodwill movement started with a ‘hand up, not a hand out,’” says Jennie Moore, vice president of mission services for Goodwill North Central Wisconsin. Its mission always has been about finding jobs for those who encounter barriers.
And like Syble Hopp, Goodwill works to match skill sets with employers. “We’re not placing someone where they can’t do the job,” Moore says.
Goodwill vocational support services team leader Kayla Countney always asks individuals about their dream jobs.
“We try to match the job and the company accordingly. It kind of keeps us on our toes; we are constantly reaching out to new businesses,” she says.
Both Syble Hopp and Goodwill offer job coaching and support to help individuals navigate the work world. Syble Hopp students also fill out a self-evaluation each time they work to ensure constant feedback. Once a year, employers fill out
Keeping both the employer and employees happy means workers are “likely to be happy, stay longer,” Moore says. “We find that our employers are very satisfied.”
Festival’s Villenauve agrees. “Our turnover rates are extremely low when it comes to disabled associates because they are passionate, committed and ready to grow with our company,” she says.
Most organizations say employers rarely have any pushback or concerns about hiring those with disabilities. “It’s an employee market,” Countney says. “People are open to finding quality employees wherever they can. Sometimes there are more questions or a little bit of a hesitation, but what we have done is provide information on how best to work with individuals with disabilities.”
Ascend Services Inc. is another program that helps those with disabilities find work. Located in Manitowoc, the nonprofit serves adults with disabilities. In 2018, Ascend helped 37 individuals
find community employment.
The organization, formerly known as Holiday House, has a mission of promoting individual growth through community experiences, education and employment opportunities. Its Community Employment Services program offers services beyond making those initial connections, such as job preparation, development and shadowing.
“Our goal is to stay out of the situation,” says Ascend Executive Director Deanna Genske.
“Our philosophy is to build relationships (with potential employers) and then identify their hiring needs. Using that model, it takes all the barriers away; it just makes good business sense.”
Genske says many of the individuals placed through Ascend have been at their jobs for 10 or more years.
“It’s all done with the conversation and relationship building with the employer,” she adds.
Julie Dean, CEO of the Manitowoc-Two Rivers YMCA, says her organization appreciates the partnership with Ascend.
“Our employees from Ascend are hardworking, dedicated, focused and interact well with our team and members,” she says. “We are community centered and we are all in this together.”
National studies support shift
National research supports local successes connecting individuals with disabilities to jobs. A recent study by Accenture, in partnership with Disability: IN and the American Association of People with Disabilities, found companies that championed and hired people with disabilities outperformed those that didn’t. The numbers bore that out — revenues were 28 percent higher, net income 200 percent higher and profit margins 30 percent higher.
Those numbers speak volumes, and the U.S. Department of Labor is fully behind the move to hire those with disabilities — a phrase that can encompass barriers including physical, mental and intellectual (those broadly defined under the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act).
The DOL’s Office of Disability Employment Policy supports several initiatives that help employers interested in hiring individuals with disabilities, including:
• The Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion (EARN), a free, nationwide service that educates employers about effective strategies for recruiting, hiring, retaining and advancing people with disabilities.
• The Workforce Recruitment Program for College Students with Disabilities (WRP), which connects private businesses and federal agencies with qualified job candidates.
• The Campaign for Disability Employment, which offers media assets designed to encourage employers and others to recognize the value and talent people with disabilities add to America’s workplaces and economy.
Americans with disabilities have posted year-over-year gains in the job market for the past 21 consecutive months, according to an analysis by the Kessler Foundation and the University of New Hampshire.
That’s due, in part, to employers reaching out to groups that they traditionally don’t reach out to, such as those with disabilities. And the conversation has come much further than just filling vacant jobs. Some businesses have started to talk about such diversity in the workplace as a value-add.
But aside from the bottom line and filling vacancies, what’s really important is the social impact of hiring people with disabilities.
Connecticut State Senator Ted Kennedy Jr., himself an amputee, noted in a recent New York Times article that “it’s hard to do better than to pledge to hire people with disabilities. Yes, we can do it because it always feels good to do what’s right. But now it turns out that reaching this next frontier for corporate social responsibility is also good business.”