Disability summit aims to break down barriers to employment

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COLUMBIA - Employment providers, state agencies and employers serving people with disabilities across the state came together to learn how to break down the barriers of obtaining employment Thursday.

The Missouri Association of Rehabilitation Facilities and the Missouri Department of Mental Health hosted the second annual Disability Employment Summit.

"People with disabilities in Missouri and nationwide have value and deserve to work in the community," said Erika Leonard, executive director of MARF.

Erik Carter, Professor of Special Education at Vanderbilt University, led the summit on Thursday. He said the focus for Thursday's summit is on all sides of the conversation.

"There are far too many people with disabilities that want to be a part of the workplace and have incredible gifts and talents to be able to do that who still do not have the opportunities or supports in place. We're trying to raise awareness, trying to coordinate our investments, so we're putting every person in the very best position," he said. "It's also about helping the service system, those agencies and organizations that come alongside people with disabilities to do an even better job of making those connection to employers."

He said Missouri is behind other states in terms of employment for those with disabilities.

"This conversation is happening across the country," he said. "Missouri is making considerable progress, but there's still much work to be done."

Leonard said those in attendance were employment providers, state agencies and employers, but not those seeking a job. Norman Zinck, plant manager of Zephyr Manufacturing in Sedalia, says his company has seen much success hiring people with disabilities after partnering with the Center of Human Services about two years ago.

"I would say we went into it with some skepticism, but the results have been absolutely wonderful," he said. "The impact that these five individuals have had on the rest of our work force have been very dramatic. We've seen an increase in morale, a positive attitude, and I think everybody has different respect for one another than we did when we started two and a half years ago," he said.

Before, Zinck's company was having trouble with high turnover. He said those with disabilities that work for them are reliable, on-time, dedicated workers.

"We have been able to identify particular strengths and weaknesses just like we would with any other employee that comes in. We've been able to find their niche in our organization where they are valuable contributors and they feel that sense of ownership and pride," he said.

The summit covered a wide range of disabilities, from developmental disabilities to mental health conditions.

"We don't want disability to be a predictor of whether or not someone has these opportunities. You want them to open up to everyone in the state," Carter said.

Zinck urges all employers to consider people with disabilities.

"Take a look at this and see if there's room for someone with a disability because they can bring a lot to your organization," he said.