Members of a Business Leadership Network initiative gathered following the Fort Scott Area Chamber of Commerce Coffee at Tri-Valley Developmental Services for a discussion regarding building a workforce that includes more people with physical and/or intellectual disabilities in the area.
The focus of the session was building the BLN in Southeast Kansas and sharing best practices on employment of people of all ages who have disabilities. The meeting included remarks from representatives of KansasWorks, Kansas Department for Children and Families and Tri-Valley. Some local businesspeople and other area residents were also in attendance.
Jeff Schroeder, representative of KansasWorks, a workforce program administered by the Kansas Department of Commerce, said growing the BLN is important and one goal is to communicate and educate businesses in the region about its focus -- adding more people with disabilities to the workforce and matching qualfied people with jobs.
"We're eager to tap into that resource matching people for jobs that are qualified," he said.
The Business Leadership Network focuses on the southeast and south-central Kansas regions and works with agencies like Tri-Valley, which serves developmentally disabled people in a four-county area.
Dana Raine, BLN administrator, said the network is a system created to support the employment of people with disabilities.
"The purpose is to educate businesses about hiring those with disabilities," she said.
Statistics show that "people look favorably on companies that hire people with disabilities," Raine said.
Ron Passmore, president and CEO of KETCH (Kansas Elks Training Center) in Wichita, said several attempts to create a BLN over the last several years were unsuccessful, but the initiative finally got off the ground after it was formed using a "business-to-business" model designed to educate firms about its goals.
"This time, we took a different approach with the business community," he said.
Passmore said the groups' biggest barrier has been encountering the many public misconceptions about people with disabilities.
"There's this notion that people with disabilities can't work, but actually the opposite is true," he said. "They come to work; they're happy to be there; there are fewer problems on the job."
Another misconception is that workplace accommodations for persons with disabilities are too expensive, but Passmore said this is not the case and there are actually tax credits available to employers to make these accommodations.
The BLN started with a series of webinars on topics of interest to employers. The group has developed articles of incorporation and is seeking to become established as a nonprofit training organization, Passmore said.
"Once that is in place, we can affiliate with the national BLN," he said.
Passmore said there is a goal of getting the total percentage of people with disabilities in the workforce up to 7 percent.
"People with disabilities are more like you than they are different," he told attendees Thursday.
Sue Morrell, a vocational rehabilitation counselor with Vocational Rehabilitation Services in Fort Scott, part of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, asked about roadblocks and what members of the group can do to encourage employers to hire more people with disabilities.
"What's standing in the way?" she asked. "Is it something we can address directly with employers to quell their fears, or something the client needs?"
In response, Darla Hanks, employment specialist at Tri-Valley, said she "thinks it is the changing cultures not only with businesses, but within the community as well.
"People are still very 'disability illiterate,'" she said. "There are people still in the community who have no idea what we (Tri-Valley) do. They need to be educated about what these employees can do. And it needs to start at home, from the beginning."
Hanks said people with disabilities is the largest minority group.
"It could be any of us at any time," she said. "Eighty-percent of people with disabilities are not in the workforce and they want to work. We're trying to encourage businesses to hire them."
Signs on a wall at Tri-Valley say that people with disabilities can be "moms and dads," "sons and daughters," "students and teachers," "employers and employees," "friends and neighbors."
Morrell said she works to find jobs for people with a wide variety of disabilities, which are "things that create an impediment to being able to work." These can include mental health, physical disabilities and drug and alcohol issues.
Hanks provided U.S. statistics that show an 11.7 percent unemployment rate, as of December 2012, for people with disabilities, and a 7.5 percent unemployment rate as of that date for people without disabilities.
Hanks said there are some clients at Tri-Valley working in the community and some are currently looking for jobs. There have been local success stories concerning people with disabilities working at companies in the area.
Members of KansasWorks, Vocational Rehabilitation and Tri-Valley have all agreed to combine their services when possible, a news release said.
The BLN has information on programs and training tools that can help get the disabled into the state's workforce centers, as well as the advantages to employers and businesses who hire people with disabilities.
"We need to get more information out and educate," Schroeder said. "Communication is one of our biggest efforts. And making sure it's correct information and updated."