By Rebecca Shurtleff, with contributions from Melissa Stewart, Christine Jacobia, Lori Cuda,
Sue Carr, Joan Reilly, Kim Lesson, Chris Blizinski, Bridget Chiaramonte, and Jennifer DeCosmo

Throughout October, Wildwood participated in National Disability in Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). NDEAM is an annual event that recognizes diversity and inclusion in the workplace. While the month-long event is important in raising awareness, finding jobs for people with disabilities is not something that happens only one month out of the year. Wildwood’s employment team is dedicated to connecting jobseekers with positions at area businesses; they also push businesses to shift their perspectives on what it means to hire someone with a disability. What’s it like to be a part of this team? Wildwood Employment Specialists and staff from the Work Readiness Program share their perspectives…

So, what does it mean to work in ‘employment’?  “I help individuals with disabilities find jobs, help them prepare for interviews, and after they are hired I help train and coach them to keep their jobs,” says Employment Specialist Christine Jacobia. Finding a position and learning how to succeed within that job take important considerations. “I help match someone’s interests and strengths to companies that are hiring,” explains Employment Specialist Melissa Stewart. “Once someone is hired, I continue to work alongside them so that they are confident in their new role, take pride in themselves, their job, and their hard work… Anywhere you or I would have a job, this is a busines where someone with a disability could have a job.”

Wildwood’s employment services work with a wide range of people. While some individuals are looking for their first job, others may have advanced degrees and be ready to start their careers. “The majority of people we work with are looking for jobs in retail, office work, a job with the State, or with animals,” explains Jennifer DeCosmo. While jobs working with animals are some of the most difficult to find, people have found employment all across the Capital Region.

“We’d like to see more companies in STEM and healthcare hire people with disabilities for entry-level office roles,” mentions Business Development Liaison Bridget Chiaramonte. “We’ve seen first-hand that it works–companies need help with reception or digitizing files, and many jobseekers that we support are extremely productive when given projects that are repetitive in nature.”

There is no “typical day” when it comes to working in this field, says Sue Carr, another employment specialist. Days will vary based on the needs of an individual and the stage they’re at in the process. Often, days will start with addressing any immediate concerns – such as helping someone understand their work schedule or get to their job on time. Throughout the day, some of Wildwood’s employment staff will visit worksites to provide support and help workers succeed on the job. Employment Specialist Lori Cuda explains: “These on-site visits focus on improving productivity, work behavior, and relationships.”

DeCosmo shared the steps people with disabilities need to take if they are interested in joining the workforce. These steps may include: Sending an application to NYS Education Department’s ACCESS-VR, who will approve or decline an application based on eligibility; if approved, ACCES-VR sends the referral to an agency (like Wildwood) who will work with the person to achieve their employment goals. If the person is already receiving services through NYS OPWDD, their care manage can submit a service request to be approved by a committee. Typically, people in OPWDD are first referred to a job prep program – like Community Pre-Voc or the Employment Training Program (ETP) – before jumping right into finding a job through OPWDD’s Supported Employment Services (SEMP). The prep program ensures the person has all the skills they need to meet business’s expectations. Once referred to Wildwood or another agency, employment specialists start helping people with the steps it takes to get a job and vary their support based on the needs of individuals and businesses.

While sometimes finding the right fit for individuals can be difficult, working in employment makes an incredibly positive impact on not only the person who is hired, but Wildwood staff as well. “That feeling of accomplishment when someone lands their dream job and knowing I helped make a difference is really rewarding,” says Chris Blizinski, an employment specialist and work readiness coordinator. It can often be a time-consuming and challenging task to help the general public and employers understand that people with disabilities are productive and contributing members of society; however, the effort is always worth it. “When I am able to place an individual into a job that is just the right fit, it is very rewarding,” says Employment Specialist Joan Reilly. What is ‘just the right fit’? “This means that the management and coworkers are warm, friendly, and really supportive; the environment is relaxing and fun; and the position is something that the individual is comfortable in almost right away.”

While Employment Services covers an expanse of areas and may sound confusing, it’s an important facet of Wildwood and plays a key role in the much wider agency-based network. Says Chiaramonte: “My ultimate goal is to find companies willing to speak to me about their hiring needs, and to match them with talented candidates. It creates mutually beneficial partnerships.” The team shares that employment can only be successful when agency staff, families, and businesses understand one another’s roles and share the same vision.

“It may surprise you, but there are many people - young and old - that are unaware of people with disabilities in the workplace,” says Kim Lesson. The efforts of Wildwood’s employment services team help raise awareness and break down barriers. Educating local companies on the importance of diversity and inclusion of the workplace, promoting initiatives like NDEAM, and all the daily work that goes into their positions is vital support that helps individuals reach their ultimate potential.

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