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Diversifying the workforce


Through its Ready, Willing and Able campaign, Polk County Health Services is attempting to make a dent in the county’s 50 percent unemployment rate for people with disabilities.

The campaign, which started a year and a half ago, relies in part on publicizing the success area companies already have had by hiring people with disabilities, says Susie Osby, a program planner for PCHS. Earlier this year, three local employers, Hy-Vee Inc., Sears, Roebuck and Co. and Principal Financial Group Inc. were recognized for taking a leadership role in promoting a diverse workforce and hiring people with disabilities.

Polk County Treasurer Mary Maloney has also welcomed a worker with disabilities into her employ. Office clerk Katie Meade, 21, has Down’s syndrome.

“I always thought that public offices like mine, we need to look like the community in all kinds of ways,” Maloney said. “Katie’s job is not working with the public, but her job is just as important as a support function as those who are working directly with the public.”

In the year and a half that Meade has worked in the treasurer’s office, she has shown herself to be a dependable employee who takes a lot of pride in her work, Maloney said. Unfortunately, Osby said, right now few people have had the opportunity to work with someone like Katie Meade.

“While people with disabilities face many hurdles, the biggest is misconceptions, especially in the workplace,” Osby said.

She says one of the common stereotypes people have is that it costs too much to hire people with disabilities, because of extra time involved in training and the special accommodations that may have to be made. To combat this, Osby and other representatives of the Ready, Willing and Able campaign educate employers that few accommodations are necessary for many disabilities, and that job coaches will be provided to take over some of the training responsibilities.

Once a service provider, such as Easter Seals, has met with an employer to determine if the position is a good job match for an individual with a disability, the provider assigns a job coach to report to work with that person.

“The coach helps the individual to learn the job, and as they learn more, the coach kind of fades away,” Osby said. “Yet the individual has a support on the job, and the employer has a contact if there is any type of communication problem. This cuts down on training time and the amount of supervision that they would have to provide.”

Maloney found that the job coach helped make smooth Meade’s transition to full-time work, and once she learned her responsibilities, she was able to function fine on the job, only needing the job coach when something new was added to her routine. Meade’s responsibilities include opening and delivering mail, working with supplies and assisting the cashiers.

“She does a lot of things, and for us, we found that if we broke things down into steps that it was easier for her,” Maloney said. “We might have approached the initial instruction a little bit differently with her and made some adaptations, but she is still expected to do her job, just like everybody else, and we’ve been very pleased with her performance.”

Renee Hardman, a senior vice president at Bankers Trust Co., was similarly impressed by Sarah Core, who started as a part-time employee at the bank.

“She did such a great job as a temp employee that when there was a full-time position open, we gave her the opportunity,” Hardman said.

Hardman says Core’s job as a lock box representative requires 10 key-by-touch and balancing skills. “While Sarah was maybe a bit slower that her colleagues, she is very accurate and pays very close attention to detail,” Hardman said. “She has very few errors.”

Not only have Meade and Core proved to be productive workers, but they make other positive contributions to the teams they work with.

“Sarah’s co-workers just love her,” Hardman said. “She is so sweet and friendly to everyone.”

“Katie is always proud of her job, and she is someone who is happy all the time and that rubs off on people,” Maloney said. “I think it’s beneficial to our entire department to have that positive influence amongst us.”

The success of the “Ready, Willing and Able” campaign is becoming evident, and Osby said the team plans to continue challenging area employers to hire people with disabilities. The Greater Des Moines Partnership is helping by providing its contact list and by circulating newsletters with information about the campaign.

“It’s the ability, not the disability, that counts,” Osby said. “People often equate disability with helplessness, and therefore an inability to earn a living in a competitive environment. Research shows that this is not the case.”


Employees with disabilities have higher job performance rates and lower absentee rates than the overall workforce, yet the national unemployment rate for disabled people exceeds 60 percent. Employer misconceptions are a major contributor to this national problem, says Susie Osby, a program planner for Polk County Health Services.

Osby said not only are the disabled being deprived of opportunities to make money when they are overlooked for jobs, their unemployment causes a financial drain on others. Each year, the United States spends more than $100 billion in private and public support payments to people with disabilities, and it’s estimated that lost income tax revenue because of unemployed people with disabilities amounts to another $200 billion annually.

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