More Kansas City area companies, programs try to match people with disabilities with the right jobs

By Susan Fotovich McCabe, Kansas City Star, October 07, 2014

For some area employers, hiring people with physical and intellectual disabilities has always been less of a mandate and more about doing the right thing.

During October, which is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, doing the right thing still rings true. But employers will now be held accountable for meeting certain employment standards for the disabled if they want to do business with the federal government.

Specifically, federal contractors and subcontractors are subject to new hiring regulations established by Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act. The ruling, which took effect in March, requires companies to meet a 7 percent hiring standard for every job group within the company, or for their entire workforce if the contractor has 100 or fewer employees.

The ruling also details specific actions contractors must take in recruitment, training, record keeping and policy dissemination. Companies working toward the 7 percent requirement are challenged by finding the good candidates who have disabilities, adapting their workplace culture and even keeping track of meeting the standards. In fact, the accountability piece of this ruling is so new, many companies such as Ferrellgas in Liberty don’t have the human resources tools to track that segment of its workforce.

“We never had to sell senior management on the practice of hiring individuals with disabilities. We’ve always done our best to that end, and it was always the right thing to do,” said Kelly Bosak, Ferrellgas’ director of employee development, staffing and human resource information systems. “But now it’s even more important because of this ruling, and yet, it’s still the right thing to do.”

Ferrellgas uses the human resource management system PeopleSoft, but the software doesn’t have a function for capturing employee disability data, she said. Under the new regulations, contractors must annually document and update several quantitative comparisons for the number of individuals with disabilities who apply for jobs, and the number that have been hired. Such data will help companies measure the effectiveness of their outreach and recruitment efforts. The data must be maintained for three years to be used to spot trends.

Ferrellgas looked into broadening its hiring after Bosak attended a Rotary meeting at which a speaker from Missouri Vocational Rehabilitation addressed the benefits of hiring people with disabilities — the people the agency serves.

“We wanted to open our doors and be one of those employers that makes a connection in this area,” Bosak said.

Ferrellgas interviewed several candidates with intellectual disabilities represented by the Missouri agency, but ultimately didn’t find a good match. It could have easily ended there, Bosak said, but Ferrellgas took the initiative to give Missouri Vocational Rehabilitation feedback about the candidates to help them better prepare for employment. Ferrellgas has since hired a full-time, entry-level analyst from Missouri Vocational Rehabilitation, and employs several other people who have become physically disabled since joining the company.

Training for the future

Once believe to be impossible, the college experience is now available around the country for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities. Locally, the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg offers the two-year certificate program, THRIVE, for this population. Students live in dorms on campus and focus on academic, independent living and work skills. THRIVE Case Manager Jessica Rhodes said students complete two internships during their time at Central Missouri, one of which is a job on campus and the other a job in the community.

“We have a variety of students with a variety of skills. We had one student who was a good writer, so he worked at our campus newspaper. Another student loved to work with animals, so he interned at a local veterinary clinic. Since graduating from the program, he moved back to his hometown, got an apartment and has a job with a veterinary clinic in that area,” she said.

Rhodes said the university worked to teach students appropriate social and workplace behavior, as well as important interviewing skills. Ferrellgas, for example, said it was challenged with inappropriate workplace behavior from one of its employees with a disability at the start of that person’s employment. But it worked with that individual’s job coach to resolve the issue, and it has never come up again.

More importantly, people with physical and intellectual disabilities should be honest with an employer, telling them their strengths and weaknesses so that employers can better address their needs, said David Westbrook, senior vice president at Children’s Mercy Hospital and president-elect of the Business Leadership Network of Kansas City.

“I think job candidates need to know that it’s important to weave into the interview the answers to the questions employers want to know, but can’t ask,” Westbrook said. “Those of us who have a disability need to be skillful at addressing it, not resentful of the insensitivity. Embrace it. It’s a teachable moment, and I’ve been proud in my life to have people help me develop these skills.”

Susan Fotovich McCabe, Special to The Star

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