Aimee Wehmeier

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As we celebrate National Disability Employment Awareness Month, Paraquad joins with many other organizations in recognizing the ongoing, uphill battle to achieve parity in the workplace. In fact, and alarmingly, since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1990, employment opportunities for people with significant disabilities have improved little, if at all.

There are many reasons for this lack of progress. Employers are reluctant to hire people with disabilities out of unfounded fears of lack of productivity and of high costs for accommodations and liability insurance. Youth with disabilities may not be prepared to enter the workforce and individuals who acquire disabilities may not have the support to start new careers. Of course, many people also face the difficult challenge of balancing their interest in working with the need to maintain income eligibility for benefits.

These challenges have been around for a long time. So what are some new solutions that Paraquad is utilizing to improve outcomes?

First, Paraquad’s AccessibleSTL program builds strategic and mutually beneficial partnerships with businesses in the community. AccessibleSTL offers surveys, training and consultation to businesses and organizations seeking to improve their capacity to hire and serve people with disabilities. By providing training to human resources professionals on topics such as unconscious bias, demystifying the costs of accommodations and liability insurance and, most importantly, sharing the benefits of hiring people with disabilities, AccessibleSTL can pave the way to new attitudes towards employing people with disabilities. This program’s success is evidenced by its increasing demand among businesses, many of whom are referred by corporate peers. AccessibleSTL also coordinates with our vocational services program to open new doors for job candidates with disabilities.

Second, we offer a unique and empowering approach to helping people with disabilities prepare for employment. We recently restructured our vocational services to emphasize the continuity of building the skills necessary to achieve economic self-sufficiency. Our Independent Living 101 classes, for example, are offered in middle school and high school and include a strong focus on employment as a key ingredient to achieving personal goals, such as getting a first apartment. Our transition department plants the seed of competitive employment as an expectation for youths to advance successfully into adulthood. We are one of just five agencies that participate in the Summer Work Experience Program, offering young adults what is typically their first jobs. In all of these programs, we maintain an intentional focus on empowerment: we help youths find their personal passions and pursue them, and we promote self-advocacy as a vital element to growing up and increasing one’s independence.

Third, we are in the exploratory phase of opening a competitive restaurant that will offer employees with disabilities real-time job training opportunities to build the skills needed to move into integrated employment. Located within our main facility, but serving the community, the restaurant will offer job experiences ranging from cooking and serving to hosting, managing and bookkeeping. It will be a gateway — a first job for most employees, with on-site job support and training. The restaurant will be a unique venue, one that will be staffed primarily by people with disabilities. It will serve as visual (and tasty!) evidence that people with disabilities are highly competent employees. We will invite corporate leaders to tour the restaurant to see how simple accommodations and universal design practices allow employees with disabilities to contribute their talents. In this way, the restaurant would not only provide direct job opportunities, but it would also be another way to demonstrate the benefits of hiring people with disabilities.

Paraquad, of course, offers a full array of traditional employment services, helping participants conduct job searches, prepare resumes and develop interviewing and soft skills to succeed on the job. We partner with key funders and employers in the St. Louis area to promote employment opportunities for our diversely talented participants.

We are proud of the many stories of people succeeding in competitive work environments. However, we recognize that new strategies must be engaged — to change perceptions of potential employers and to better prepare job candidates to succeed in the careers of their choice.

Aimee Wehmeier is the President and CEO of Paraquad. She can be reached at awehmeier@paraquad.org.

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