Missouri Program To Create Jobs For Youth With Disabilities

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COLUMBIA - Imagine only 20 percent of the population is employed and your chances of obtaining a job are slim because of something you cannot change. Advocates say that is the reality for people with disabilities, but a new state program is trying to change those odds.

The Show-Me-Careers project launched this month to give eight pilot communities in Missouri the ability to create more job opportunities for youth with disabilities, ages 16-30. Columbia is one of the communities receiving the grant and it is getting the maximum amount of $65,000.

John Savage, the director of Alternative Community Training, is the chair of Columbia's board for the project. He said a major task for the program is to build partnerships with businesses that are willing to give people with disabilities a chance.

"We all have a pre-conceived notion of what disability means, including me," Savage said.

Savage said getting business owners to let go of those pre-conceived notions is key. One way the project will reach out to businesses is with the advice of board member Kat Cunningham, local business owner of Moresource, Inc.

Another board memeber, Michael Evans, is blind and said an employer would not hire him because of his disability. Evans, 23, is a student at Moberly Area Community College's Columbia campus and is furthering his education to improve his chances of getting a job.

"With my visual impairment, people believe that there's a lot of things that I can't do," Evans said.

Savage hopes Evans' personal experience as a youth with a disability will lend the board the perspective needed to improve Columbia's opportunities for workers with disabilities.

"We as service providers kind of get our head down and think we know what we should be doing and how we should be doing it and to get the perspective of an individual who's going through it from the other side can be very helpful," Savage said.

Once the project establishes business partnerships, it will focus on two other goals: preparing people with disabilities for work and better coordinating Columbia's service systems.

Preparing individuals for work is something many of the service systems already do, but Savage said this program focuses on youth for a reason.

"Helping students and other individuals in that 18 to 30 age range kind of devlop their skills and their knowledge of the job market so that they can better prepare to be apart of that job market is a big part of helping people become successfully employed," Savage said.

Jessica Fulton is one of 150 people with a disability employed through ACT's career services. Fulton is mentally handicapped and said she is thankful for the opportunity to help provide for her parents and siblings.

"I [needed] to get out of the house and not sit at the house so long," Jessica said. "This job pays the bills and puts food in the house ... and that's why this job was so important."

Other service systems on the board for the project include:

Boone County Family Resources
Vocational Rehabilitation
Services for Independent Living
Columbia Public Schools

The board wants to add at least 57 more entry-level job opportunities like Jessica's over the span of the next three years. Savage said job opportunities for people with disabilities should continue to grow after the grant ends in three years because business partnerships will be well establshed.