Work still elusive for people with disabilities: Employment rates remain stagnant even though a wealth of programs are finding success placing workers

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The lesson Amy Kurzekwa taught the folks at the downtown Gregory & Appel Insurance agency reaches far beyond what they learned about premiums and deductibles.

Since 1992, she has taken the bus to her job there as a clerical assistant, performing such tasks as sorting and delivering the office mail and filling the copy machines.

While most anyone can do that, Kurzekwa, 37, is irreplaceable to her co-workers. Her role in opening their eyes to the fact that people with disabilities can perform in the workplace has been priceless.

“People look at us differently and don’t think we can hold a job,” said Kurzekwa, who has a developmental disability. “I’ve held a job for 14 years and I’m proud of that.”

Yet, national employment figures for people with disabilities remain stagnant. Only 35 percent reported being employed either full or part time, according to a 2004 Harris Poll survey conducted for the Washington, D.C.-based National Organization on Disability.

The figure is nearly unchanged in the 20 years since Harris completed its first survey on the subject. The results trouble the NOD, which expected the numbers to improve following the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

“I think that attitude continues to be a major barrier,” said Nancy Starnes, NOD vice president and chief of staff. “But it’s certainly not the only barrier.”

Lack of public transportation is not a factor for Kurzekwa, but it is for many like her who want to work. Without access, it’s difficult for people with disabilities to get a job, Starnes said.

Agencies helping that sector of society find employment in the Indianapolis area deal with the challenges daily.

Noble of Indiana has 250 people, including Kurzekwa, placed at companies in the city. Another 160 work at Noble Industries’ sheltered workshop on Tibbs Avenue, where employees manufacture, assemble or package products for entities with which it has contracts.

A few of the more notable contracts include packing sack lunches for troops at Camp Atterbury near Edinburgh and stuffing runner packets for the Indianapolis Mini-Marathon.

One of the biggest struggles Noble faces is convincing employers they can hire someone with a developmental disability, agency CEO Michael Howland said. The pitch becomes even more difficult when the economy is soft.

To help familiarize employers with its services, Noble has launched one-hour orientations twice a month.

Crossroads Industrial Services, an affiliate of Easter Seals Crossroads, is looking to hire a full-time sales and marketing person to help spread its message as well.

It hires folks with both developmental and physical disabilities to work at its eastside factory that receives outside contracts. The goal is to train them well enough to get jobs elsewhere.

“It’s very difficult for people to get past the fact that I might have 100 people in wheelchairs here,” said General Manager Mike Gillum, who spent 28 years in manufacturing. “But once they come in here, they’re blown away.”

Crossroads recently invested $500,000 in sheet-metal equipment and earned ISO 9001:2000 certification, which means it met International Standards Organization criteria. The designation is equally important in that it should alleviate any fears that Crossroads employees, who are paid an average hourly wage of $8.25, can’t do the work, Gillum said.

“It’s a huge accomplishment,” he said. “It really makes a statement that we’re a player in the manufacturing business.”

Indeed, U.S. Army contracts with Crossroads totaled $20 million in 2004, due largely to a five-year deal that has been renewed to supply military vehicles with combat identification panels. The panels are mounted on Humvees, tanks and transporters and can be recognized with technology from up to three miles away. The object is to prevent friendly-fire incidents.

Outside Marion County, Janus Developmental Services Inc. in Noblesville provides employment opportunities for about 70 people with developmental disabilities mostly in Hamilton, Madison and Tipton counties. It operates a sheltered workshop on site as well.

The obstacle to public transportation that existed there is no longer an issue after Janus executives worked with the city of Noblesville to launch a program four years ago. The fleet now includes four vehicles funded by the city that began running throughout Hamilton County in March.

Kathie Bowman, Janus’ director of community employment services, hopes the transportation system will help sway businesses to hire the agency’s clientele.

“That’s a whole potential work force that they might not be looking at,” she said. “Just because they’re disabled doesn’t mean they can’t work.”

Kurzekwa has more than proven that to her colleagues at Gregory & Appel. But that doesn’t mean it was easy. Company President Dan Appel, a Noble director, was queried before her arrival 14 years ago whether Gregory & Appel would hire someone with a disability.

Employees responded with some apprehension at the then-innovative concept, Appel said. Nonetheless, Gregory & Appel proceeded and brought Kurzekwa on part time, with the oversight of a Noble job coach. In less than a year, she was elevated to full-time status.

Appel has no regrets about his decision.

“There was a wonderful transformation from our employees in terms of dealing with people with disabilities,” he said. “It’s about the best diversity training you can have.”

In fact, job discrimination among the disabled is down. Those who encountered biases dropped from 36 percent in 2002 to 22 percent in 2004, according to Harris.

For her part, Kurzekwa said she feels like a “real part of the family.”

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