COVINGTON, Ky. — People who live with disabilities are constantly working to overcome challenges; key among them: finding a place to work. Oct. is Disability Employment Awareness Month, a time to help people overcome that challenge of attaining employment.
When he’s not draining buckets, and trying to get his players to hustle as head coach of the champion wheelchair basketball team, the Cincinnati Dragons, Jake Counts is the director of programming for Skool Aid.
Skool Aid offers enrichment programs to kids for after school, summer school and school assembly. Basically, Counts said, people in the field of arts and athletics are able to teach kids classes.
Counts, who acquired his disability in 1993 when he was 13, said his jobs also bring enrichment to his life.
“Employment is kind of, a lot of times, that last piece of the puzzle to true independence,” Counts said. “I think, a lot of times, someone with a disability, first they learn to overcome whatever challenges they need to take care of themselves, and go on with their day to day life. Next, they become members of the community, and family members. And then the last step to being truly independent is where you’re generating your own revenue, and fully independent, and taking care of yourself.”
Counts said he thinks there’s been good momentum toward inclusivity in the workforce.
“We’re making strides in the right direction, and there’s still a ton of work to do. I know a lot of kids, when they’re leaving high school, or when they’re leaving college, it’s definitely a challenge to be able to find their spot in the workplace, but I think as a society, we’re getting better at meeting that challenge,” he said.
Easterseals Serving Greater Cincinnati provides a variety of services to help people with disabilities find employment. For adults, Easterseals provides job readiness services, assessments, placement, coaching and on job support to help people learn a job and retain it.
Clients the organization serves have been placed in jobs deemed essential at places like restaurants and grocery stores. President and CEO Pam Green said she has seen firsthand the reliability, productivity and contributions the workers can make.
Green debunked some of the outdated reasons employers have shied away from hiring people with disabilities in the past.
“I think a lot of times employers who have never been around folks with disabilities have a lot of fear about safety,” Green said. “I would say the reality is people with disabilities are used to living with some compromising health conditions, they’re used to living under a different set of rules than we are, and so by nature that makes most folks with disabilities safe. It makes them cautious. And it makes them good employees.”
Transportation has long been one of the biggest barriers to employment for people with disabilities. But one silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the advancements in the variety of ways people can work, Green said.
“For years, employers have said that people have to come into the office. Whether it’s somebody with a mobility challenge, or whether it’s someone who isn’t a family that is able to provide them transportation,” she said. “We now know that a lot of jobs we thought people had to come into the office for, they can actually be done from home. So we think there’s a whole new world of employment opportunities for people with disabilities, so we’re excited about that future.”
People with disabilities often have learning challenges.
“When they’re starting out on the job, people may be like I don’t know if they’re going to get it. Well, through repetition and through job coaching, and support, they will,” Green said. “And that’s the important thing that I think employers need to understand, is that there are supports available for you to get a full-time funded job coach.”
Green said such job coaches don’t detract resources or training from other employees.
“People with disabilities are absolutely a phenomenal resource for employment right now as we look at this crazy labor force shortage,” she said.
Easterseals Serving Greater Cincinnati operates a program in partnership with Cincinnati Children’s Hospital called Project Surge. Groups of high school students, during their deferred year of graduation, work on site at businesses in a series of rotations. They can learn what their interests and skills are. Easterseals provides employment support to them in finding their ideal job.
“One of the number one ways to determine if a young person with a disability will be successful in employment is did they work in high school? And so we think it’s important to connect people to employment early on,” Green said.
Counts said he tries to teach his kids they can accomplish anything.
“I really try to encourage them to get as many tools in their toolbox as they can, and develop as many skills and passions, because you never really know what’s going to turn into a job,” Counts said. “A lot of times when you’re starting off with a disability, you’re kind of narrowing down the possibilities a little bit. So just the more skills you can develop, the more things you can get into, and be passionate about, the opportunity you’ll have to be able to work in different fields.”