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  • CHOICE Staff

National Disability Employment Awareness Month

*Supportive employment agency practices what they preach*

DECORAH -- Job coaches support workers who have disabilities, but we’ve decided to introduce some CHOICE Employment Services staff members with disabilities of their own. It’s our way to honor National Disability Employment Awareness Month.

Most American workers have some sort of needs, and usually resolve these issues on their own. Even an employee who no longer drives may make sure to find a job on the public bus route.

With a disability, however, the job task itself may require adjustment; these “accommodations” allow an otherwise qualified person with a disability to meet the position’s requirements. Accommodations are arrangements that are made in order to utilize somebody's strengths and minimize their areas of struggle. A job coach, a consumer, or anybody, in all reality, will be much more effective in their job if they are comfortable with what is being asked of them.

CHOICE Employment Services in Decorah specializes in connecting consumers who have disabilities with employers who have job openings. Part of that mission requires them to get creative: CHOICE specialists look at the candidate’s limitations, looks at the job description and, usually with input from a boss and the employee, figures out how to get the work done.

But CHOICE is also an employer which hires people to support workers with disabilities after they are hired. CHOICE does that through its job coaches, so they seek positive job coaches who will encourage new workers, offer reminders from initial company training and use their experience to support their consumer as they learn to perform tasks that may at first appear out of reach.

And if a quality coach comes along, a disability isn’t going to stop CHOICE management from hiring them.

“You’re scared to tell an employer that you have limitations,” said Jean Manning, a CHOICE job coach. “There may be some kind of bias.”

Eight hours in an office chair wasn’t going to be the solution for Jean.

“I can’t sit for too long,” she said before acknowledging, “and I can’t stand for too long.”

That could make scheduling Jean difficult – or at least take extra effort. Can Jean work in this place? How about here? Watching the five CHOICE Regional Directors shows how much time they’re willing to spend so that CHOICE employees get enough hours, regardless of health limitations.

The five managers sit at a conference table together, computers connected and a conversation calmly flowing.

“I needed to be able to sit and stand at will,” Jean said. “They (CHOICE) always scheduled me at job sites where I had that ability.”

So when did she break the news of her physical disabilities to owners of the family-run business? She told CEO Carrie Dahlquist and her husband Patrick before she even started.

“I knew during the [initial job] interview it was the right thing to say because they understood people with disabilities. There was a sense of openness and acceptance. Not just the employers, [but among] the coworkers, too.”

Jean said that CHOICE’s philosophy leads to a culture where understanding and acceptance have become the norms among job coaches and clients. Jean said the agency is better because of that culture.

“It creates an environment of caring and support,” she said.

CHOICE understands that it can be tricky navigating how much to share with your employer in regards to having a disability. Historically disclosing that information has had undesirable consequences. People with disabilities make many significant contributions in the workplace, but they are too often overlooked or undervalued by job recruiters and hiring managers. By offering diverse and comprehensive supported employment services, CHOICE Employment Services strives to raise awareness and increase job placements in competitive community employment.

At CHOICE, we believe it is our job as employers to create a work environment where current and potential employees feel confident, safe, and comfortable sharing any and all limitations they may have. Whether it be a physical disability that makes standing or sitting for too long troublesome, being unable to drive at night due to cataracts, or having anxiety because of being in a certain type of environment, having the ability to share those concerns is a must.

“We are very proud of the progress we have made towards inclusion in the workforce in the recent years,” said CHOICE CEO Carrie Dahlquist. "We hope to continue to build momentum and are excited to see what new opportunities will come as diversity and inclusion in the workforce become more prioritized in the annual goals of companies across the country."

CHOICE is very proud of the work we do with people who have disabilities, and we are just as proud to hire people with disabilities within our agency.

National Disability Employment Awareness Month serves as a reminder of the benefits of inclusion for employees and employers not just in October but all year long.

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