“Empowering Our Citizens: Disability Inclusion in the Wisconsin Workforce” brought together employers, people with disabilities and their families to discuss the important role work plays in the lives of individuals who have a disability.
The recent event, organized by My Choice Family Care at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, featured speaker Simon Duffy of Sheffield, England, an advocate for workers with disabilities.
“There are lots of obvious business reasons to hire people with disabilities. Your business exists hopefully because the community needs you,” he said. “If you are a business owner, you have a responsibility to overcome the segregation and prejudice to welcome people into opportunities.”
After Duffy spoke, panels of experts took questions from the audience and shared their own stories.
Cindy Bentley is Executive Director of People First Wisconsin, an organization that helps those with disabilities speak up on issues like jobs and health care. She was born with an intellectual disability and knows firsthand the challenges of trying to find work.
“Employers need to look at what (workers with disabilities) can do, not what they can’t do,” she said. “We want a real job in the world. I don’t want to be charity, I want to work, and so do my peers. If you’re working, making a paycheck and paying taxes, you’re a human being. You need to look at the person. It’s not what’s on the outside, it’s what’s in your heart.”
Employers on the panel had positive stories to tell about their workers.
Andres Gonzales, Vice President, Chief Diversity Officer for Froedtert Health, said Froedtert participates in Project SEARCH, an intern program for individuals with disabilities. “They foster teamwork and bring a great work ethic. It’s been a great transformative effort for us,” he said. “It’s definitely the right thing to do, but more than that, it makes business sense.” Gonzales said that during three years of Project SEARCH, Froedtert has had 28 interns, and hired 21 of them.
Joe Minton, Regional Manager for Planet Fitness, was also enthusiastic. “We’ve been in business about 10 years, and we’ve partnered with Goodwill and have been employing individuals with disabilities for seven years,” he said. “We’re definitely very passionate as a group about hiring people with disabilities.”
Jenny Stonemeier, Executive Director of the Association of People Supporting EmploymentFirst (APSE) said employers are realizing the contributions people with disabilities can make to their businesses. “We’re not employing people with disabilities because it makes us feel good. We have a need and a job that needs to be done,” she said.
Panelists also discussed the challenges of navigating the system of benefits and support.
Kathy Meisner-Altman, Director of Independent Living Services at Independence First, addressed a question about whether people with disabilities could work and still get benefits.
“You need to work with a benefits specialist because the specialist can look at the whole picture and allow the person to make educated decisions about whether they want to work. People may be able to work and not lose benefits,” she said, but added that every situation is different and expert advice is needed.
Meanwhile, Robbin Thomas Lyons, President of Wisconsin Upside Down, a Down syndrome support organization, talked about the importance of parents encouraging their children’s dreams of employment. A parent of two children with disabilities, she explained “how empowering it is to make decisions for themselves, to get their own work and to live on their own.”
Bentley agreed with that remark.
“I love my job – it gives me a sense of belonging in my community,” she said. “I like getting up in the morning, and I have a purpose. I pay my taxes and live in my own apartment.”