It’s National Disability Employment Awareness Month and the theme is “America’s Workforce: Empowering All.” Easterseals Disability Staffing Network (EDSN) is the social venture employment agency that matches people with disabilities with a wide range of private sector employers, and aims to empower individuals with disabilities to obtain competitive and meaningful work that we launched this summer.
To recognize the importance of empowering people of all abilities, and to educate about the benefits of an inclusive workforce, two members of the EDSN team have shared their personal experiences, and their roles in educating employers and helping individuals with disabilities find meaningful employment.
Vera Damanka is the talent acquisition manager and she spends most of her time reaching out to potential employees, whether through job fairs or partner organizations that provide services to people with disabilities. She has been living with a disability since she was a child and working since she was 14 years-old. While in college, she developed a passion for advocating for more resources, support and accommodations for students with disabilities. By the time an opportunity to work with EDSN came along, she was ready to take on the challenges of actively placing her fellow peers with best matched employers.
Timothy Kirkendall is the business development manager at EDSN and he spends his time building partnerships with private businesses and educating them about the importance and benefits in hiring individuals with disabilities. A former law enforcement officer, veteran, and U.S. Marshal, whose disabilities started developing after serving in Afghanistan, he understands the challenges wounded warriors and individuals with disabilities face when trying to seek meaningful careers. After learning to live with his disabilities and reevaluating what service he could still offer society, he discovered a strong calling towards veteran and disability advocacy.
Q: Why did you choose to work with EDSN?
Vera: I came through a referral from Program Director Deirdre Bulger. We’ve known each other for more than 3 years when she was a disability services coordinator at the college I went to. We previously worked very collaboratively together, since I ran a peer support group for students with chronic illness and disabilities. When Deirdre came to me with the opportunity, I was actually working at the time. However, I was already craving to have more of a direct impact on people in my work rather than being scripted. EDSN seem to be a good opportunity for me to be able to share my own story, so I could empower other people to be able to work competitively.
Timothy: Prior to EDSN, I worked for the Maryland State Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), helping veterans secure a variety of benefits from disability to education, and other services provided by the VA. I found the work to be challenging, but eventually left to find other opportunities around veteran advocacy. I previously met members of the Veteran Staffing Network, who I connected with through LinkedIn, and when I started communicating to my contacts that I was on the market to continue my work of supporting veterans and people with disabilities, I was told about this new position that opened.
Q: What can you share with us about your disabilities?
Vera: Primarily, I deal with a lot of neuromuscular disabilities with symptoms that mimic an extreme form of fibromyalgia. I previously used a wheelchair to get around campus because the muscle disease was pretty debilitating, but now I use a walker. I also have a few issues with my heart and vascular system, and now also have very bad migraines.
Timothy: My disability is a pretty wide range from having been in combat. I was diagnosed with PTSD, and other subsidiaries that come with that like depression and anxiety, which I have learned to cope with. Also, because of an accident that happened in Afghanistan, I’ve injured my neck, my spine and have bone spurring up and down. I also have a degenerative disk disease in my cervical spine, which has led to some neurological conditions like shaky hands or losing feeling in my arms. Sometimes I also have joint and knee problems. You could say, this car has definitely got some scratches on the paint and miles on it. For my disability, I feel it is important to put it out there because once we make it normal to discuss these kinds of things, it will no longer be viewed with a stigma and fear.
Q: Why is the work of EDSN so important?
Timothy: There are so many advantages that individuals with disabilities add to the workforce. In fact, one of our biggest selling points about our candidates is that many have developed their own strategies for remaining independent, and they are bringing that incredible thinking skill to your jobs. Vera and I are a great example of how the disability workforce can benefit an organization. It’s also time for a paradigm shift to happen for proactively getting more people with disabilities into the workforce. The ADA was passed more than 28 years ago and we are still having this conversation, which means not enough is being done. I also take the time to educate partners on exactly how Easterseals is able to provide us with reasonable accommodation without that much more effort.
Q: How does Easterseals provide you with reasonable accommodation?
Vera: Deirdre is good about giving Timothy and me the license to take care of our health first. She always says that if you are happy and healthy, then you are going to work harder, and the team as a whole will be a lot more successful. For example, she allows for my schedule to be flexible when it comes to my doctor’s appointments. I have a speech to text software installed on my computer, so I don’t have to type everything, and in general I don’t feel intimidated to ask for additional support that will help me feel most comfortable to be able to do my job well.
Timothy: Deirdre has a very extensive history of supporting individuals with disabilities and is very in tune with anything that we need. She doesn’t just think about those things from inside the box. It’s really up for interpretation and nothing is really off the table with her in the realm of reasonable accommodation.
Q: What are the top questions you get from individuals with disabilities seeking employment?
Vera: The number 1 question I get is: will anyone hire me? It’s heartbreaking because it’s the perception that the world may not see them as employable, and that’s just simply not true. For me, it’s a matter of first helping them identify the employers that are willing to hire people with disabilities and make accommodations. Next, I like to focus on ensuring our candidates’ resumes and professional development skills are impeccable, and that they are confident talking about their skills to employers.
The second question is associated with the fear of losing their disability benefits when they go back to work, which can be income based. We understand that for them to even qualify for those benefits took a great deal of time, so the risk of losing it due to work is a valid fear. But through the Ticket to Work program, many of our candidates can try out working without the fear of losing their benefits. We also have different work incentives throughout the course of the program, which will help allow for benefits to slowly taper off over time. And we have opportunities for expedited reinstatement of disability benefits, if for whatever reason an individual suddenly needs to stop working without having to go through the entire application process.
The third biggest worry is about accommodation and disclosure of their disability. A lot people don’t actually know what accommodation they need. They just know that they need them, and they don’t know how and when to present an employer with that information. These are the things I go over with candidates when they have their one-on-one coaching sessions.
Q: What’s the biggest concerns employers have about hiring individuals with disabilities?
Timothy: Cost is the biggest concern for most employers, especially small businesses. It’s understandable, but that is why we remind them about the tax credits and ADA compliance. We’ve also had companies feel they were doing charity by hiring an individual with a disability, so why should they have to pay to do charity. I remind them that this is not charity. EDSN is sending a qualified individual who has already been vetted and is ready to do the work. All we ask is that the companies interview the individual and see if they meet the qualifications of the job, regardless of their disability. All our candidates are looking for a hand-up, not a handout.
The other concerns companies have is usually surrounding the types of disabilities our candidates have. We get questions like: how is it going to affect my business? What are reasonable accommodations? With our candidates, companies have to remember that EDSN would have already done the work by vetting these individuals and sending them best-matched candidates. As for reasonable accommodations, we will work with companies to set that up once a candidate has been accepted. EDSN is not interested in throwing bodies at jobs, but rather building relationships and setting up our candidates for meaningful work.
Q: What kinds of jobs do EDSN candidates qualify for?
Vera: Literally anything. Hospitality, construction, electrician, mental health counselors, career coaches, judges, litigation assistance, network security specialists, IT, and clerical. We have candidates, who have worked previously for federal agencies with top secret clearances to candidates who have been house- keepers for 22 years and want to continue to do that work.
Timothy: As for employers we talk to everyone. I’ve met with Dell and Microsoft, as well as small mom and pop businesses. I’ve also met potential employers in the legal, medical, IT, janitorial, and hospitality industries. That’s the way I like it because EDSN has to have a portfolio that is as diverse as the community we serve, and no one disability or the individuals that have them is the same.
For more information on the EDSN program for potential employer partners, talent, or the Ticket to Work Program, please go to EDSN.ESEAL.ORG.