Easterseals launches Disability Friendly Employers program

By Shelley Widhalm

The Surveyor

Similar to the Better Business Bureau, Easterseals Colorado plans to start listing Disability Friendly Employers through a program launched in January that matches the needs of both employers and employees.

“The concept behind the program is to be the Better Business Bureau, but for businesses that hire folks with disabilities,” said Patrick Dillon, supported employment coordinator of Easterseals Colorado, a Loveland-based nonprofit that serves Northern Colorado.

Dillon came up with the idea for the program when he saw employers hesitate hiring clients of Easterseals and other youth, adults and veterans with disabilities, because they lacked an understanding of the benefits of making the hires. The employers ranged from small businesses to corporate chains, he said.

Joshua Griess, 28, works as a stocking clerk at Esh’s Grocery Market in Loveland through a partnership between the store and Easterseals. With him is employment specialist James Haley.

“I feel like we have so much more potential to get our clients and neighbors with disabilities in jobs if we had a better understanding of the needs of businesses,” Dillon said. “With some businesses when you say the word ‘disability,’ they automatically assume that’s going to reduce their productivity. … We’re working to address some misconceptions some business owners have.”

Businesses also expressed concern about how hiring those with disabilities will affect their bottom line, said Katie Dockery, director of Northern Colorado services at Easterseals Colorado.

“We really need to be at the beginning of the conversation about how great an asset a client can be,” Dockery said. “We really want to get the best opportunities for (businesses) for them to be able to hire people with disabilities. … We are the experts of working with people with disabilities, and we want to be able to offer that at the beginning of the conversation for businesses wanting to hire employees with barriers to employment.”

Easterseals job coaches originally approached perspective businesses without a prior relationship with the company, stating they had someone interested in a position but not inquiring about the company’s needs, concerns and wishes, Dillon said. The idea of the DFE program is to first establish that relationship for successful placements of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, as well as significant barriers to employment.

“It will be more impactful for the community because we’re focusing on the needs of business,” Dillon said. “We’re going to businesses, asking about them, rather than what they can do for us. … The program starts with the company first, so we can offer support and training, so they can understand what it takes to secure reasonable accommodations for the employee.”

As an example, a job coach working with an employer considering hiring someone with mobility issues will evaluate the worksite to make sure the employee can function at the location while doing the job, Dillon said. The job coach also will work with the client to make sure the client is trained for the position.

The program, which is free to businesses who participate, promotes that those companies can receive four different tax credits as an additional incentive to hire those with disabilities.

During the first year of the program the focus will be on increasing community awareness and building a database of Disability Friendly Employers.

“We’ve been going on a one-way road placing folks with disabilities. We want to make it two-way and meet in the middle,” Dillon said.

Easterseals is in communication with more than 200 businesses along the Front Range about the program. The nonprofit will distribute certificates of designations to employers who commit to the program, stating they support a diverse and supportive workforce within their companies.

“When perspective customers or individuals with disabilities visit a business, they automatically know they are in a friendly establishment. This business is focused on making sure everyone has a chance to create a career,” Dillon said. “It increases loyalty.”

The first certificates will be provided to the Berthoud Weekly Surveyor, issued sometime this spring, and One Way Property Management in Greeley, Dillon said. Easterseals aims to have 100 businesses certified as Disability Friendly Employers by the beginning of 2019.

“We want to make sure each business has the tools and information before they sign off on a commitment,” Dillon said.

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