January 16, 2014

‘Finally independent’

Collaboration offers internships, jobs for adults with disabilities

By Christopher Smith
christophersmith@daltoncitizen.com

— When Cassidy Bradford graduated from high school in 2011 she said she didn’t have a direction for her life.

Most other classmates went on to get jobs or start college. Bradford, who is developmentally delayed, stayed home with her family.

“I was just hanging out,” she said.

That is, until she found Cross Plains Community Partner, a local organization that helps people with disabilities find employment. Cross Plains recently partnered with Shaw Industries to give Bradford a 10-week internship that ended on Dec. 2, 2013.

But the job she got at the end of her internship? That wasn’t given. She “earned” that, she said.

“I practiced a lot (for the interview), had my resume, everything,” she said. “It feels great. It feels really good to make a paycheck.”

Now, Bradford stocks and scans flooring inventory at Shaw’s Plant 52 on Riverbend Road. The plant is filled with co-workers — “people she likes a lot” — who call out her name like a cheer whenever she pops out from behind shelves of carpet tiles and flooring products.

“It feels good to have a job,” Bradford said. “The people are the best part.”

Deborah Conway, executive director with Cross Plains, said Bradford is an exception.

“The statistics out there show that people with disabilities have a higher rate of unemployment,” she said. “It far exceeds that of typical people.”

Even harder, Conway said, is finding corporations willing to look beyond the “stereotype” of adults struggling with disabilities.

“Having companies and organizations like Shaw embracing the fact that people with disabilities have something to offer the workplace ... is half the battle,” she said. “We all know partnership is the best way to go. Together we can do more. But a lot of times, that’s something you hear from people and it doesn’t necessarily translate into how they actually interact.”

Conway said Cross Plains uses Project SEARCH, a program that helps high school seniors with disabilities and developmental delays find long-term jobs. The program started at the Cincinnati (Ohio) Children’s Hospital Medical Center in 2008. The Cross Plains version of the program aims to include young graduates, not just high school seniors.

Christi Sparks, the equal employment opportunity manager at Shaw and a board member for Cross Plains, said Shaw’s corporate support of the program makes her “extremely proud.”

“Each year, we ask for a little bit more and we get it,” she said.

Shaw put up the money and found a venue for a showcase late last year that operated like a job fair for local adults with disabilities, leading to two other interns finding full-time jobs. It was the first job fair of its kind locally, Conway said.

“Programs like that are the difference between people (like Cassidy) getting a job and losing it right away or maintaining one for 25 years,” she said.

Another boost for interns, Conway said, is an end of day class where Cross Plains job coaches reiterate workplace norms like interpersonal communication and meshing with office culture. That’s where Katie Hunt, an employment specialist with Cross Plains, comes into the picture. Hunt spends time with each intern to make sure they understand job requirements and “soft skills” like taking initiative.

“Those skills are often taken for granted by most people,” Hunt said. “Cassidy, when she was an intern, came to me and said, ‘If I leave early will that show that I don’t have initiative?’ So it’s things like that that they learn that we take for granted.”

Hunt said the program aims to help interns grow into adults without patronizing them.

“They have to be there every day, they have to learn to work as a team, they have to have responsibilities,” she said. “Everything that real employees have to learn.”

Learning those responsibilities has changed Bradford.

“It feels like I’ve finally entered the adult world and that I’m not a kid anymore,” she said. “I’m finally independent.”