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Harkin Center brings disabled closer to self-sufficiency


Computer training labs are not always user friendly for people with disabilities, and the new Tom Harkin Learning Center, a skill-building site for adults with disabilities, is designed to address the problem.

The Harkin Center, which opened last month inside the Workforce Center at 430 E. Grand Ave., is “the crown jewel” of Project Employment, an effort by the Central Iowa Employment and Training Consortium to increase the number of people with disabilities in the workforce, according to Nathan Brooks, special projects manager for CIETC.

“There’s nothing like this [Project Employment] in the state that connects individuals with intermediate to moderate disabilities with jobs,” Brooks said. “There are many people who don’t quite qualify for vocational rehabilitation, but they have some disabilities which make it difficult to go out and find employment and fit into the workforce. Our task is to get them job ready by increasing their skill level and competency.”

Julie DenOuden, learning center instructor, said the 12-workstation Harkin Center has ample space and special equipment for people with different disabilities, and it plans to add more need-specific instruments in the near future.

“The whole room is set up to help an individual with a disability,” she said. “Our hard drives are small and placed on top of the table so that anyone in a wheelchair would not bump into them. Three of our monitors are larger for the sight-impaired. All the keyboards are the same right now, but we are well prepared and aware that we might have to buy additional equipment to meet the needs of the people that come in. The tables can also adjust up and down for someone who needs to stand.”

Last week, Project Employment’s first four students completed their four-week computer and soft skills training in the learning center, and by the end of the program, more than 200 people will be served. A $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor was secured by Sen. Tom Harkin to purchase the Harkin Center’s state-of-the-art equipment and hire three additional staff members to administer Project Employment.

“The Regional Workforce Investment Board had this vision of addressing the lack of options for persons with disabilities to get into the workforce,” Brooks said. “Senator Harkin, being the champion that he is for the Americans with Disabilities Act, was a natural go-to guy with that vision. He picked it up and really embraced it. He has been both a sponsor for it in Washington and a real advocate for it in Iowa.”

DenOuden said Project Employment also accepts people who are not disabled who have not received their GED. But she predicts that the majority of her clients in the Harkin Center will have some type of disability, since this is an area in which there has been a significant need.

“Even for those who qualify for vocational rehab, there are three tiers of waiting lists, and we’re kind of hitting the bottom one, the ones who don’t need desperate help, who would be on that waiting list for quite a while,” she said.

Brooks said the job training CIETC will provide will not only boost the confidence and abilities of “individuals who have these barriers,” but will also strengthen the local workforce.

“Any time you can increase the resources for helping people learn and helping people with those skills, it’s a bonus for your workforce,” he said. “From an employer perspective, two things come into play when they look at hiring people with disabilities. They want to know whether it increases their risk and their cost. In some instances, we’re going to be able to tailor the training to certain positions for the employers, which cuts their costs in training. It’s really a win-win for both.”

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