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How Kansas City groups are rethinking the job market for workers with disabilities

Amanda Myers
Down Syndrome Innovations
Justin Hostetter, has been an employee of The University of Kansas Health System for nearly 10 months. Hostetter completes tasks that previously limited the time patient service representatives spent with patients.

Employment for workers with disabilities has reached a record high, but one Kansas City mom says it's not enough. Local groups are taking a more individualized approach to hiring, and finding ways to erase barriers.

Justin Hostetter, an employee at The University of Kansas Health System, is among the one in four Americans living with a disability. He's been a patient service representative assistant — a position created for Hostetter in the allergy clinic at the hospital— for about 10 months.

"I refill a copy paper, fill and clean clipboards, do no-show letters, stock the supply cart, do lots of different stuff that my co-workers don't have time to do," Hostetter said.

Amanda Myers, an employment coordinator at Down Syndrome Innovations, was able to work with the hospital staff to determine where Hostetter could excel as a hospital employee.

"The KU staff kind of helped us write down a list of tasks that took them away from their job, and we started with just a handful and then we continued to build off of that," Myers said.

As a result of Hostetter's assistance, the patient service representatives are able to spend more time with patients — and more clinics on the internal medicine floor of the hospital have requested his services.

"Some days are faster than the other. So I like that cause it makes the day go by quick," Hostetter said.

Myers said positions like Hostetter's can be emulated in other job sectors. More than ever, individuals with a disability are finding employment, according to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Burnout stemming from the COVID pandemic and the country’s currently low unemployment rate are presenting a hiring challenge for some employers, forcing them to evaluate recruitment and hiring processes.

“The job market is very different, unemployment is very low,” said Jeff Novorr, vice president of hospitality services at The University of Kansas Health System.

Novorr said the hospital began looking more critically at their recruitment, orientation and onboarding processes because they were struggling to fill positions.

“When you don't have the same number of people applying for jobs, you have to think very differently," Novorr said. "And sometimes that means even trying to identify different populations that we typically hadn't thought about."

Myers said that online applications, cover letters and lengthy orientation can be barriers to employment. The one-size-fits-all approach to hiring doesn’t work.

“It really is about understanding what any individual's abilities are,” Novorr said.

“Gone are the days where you graduated from high school, to the couch,” said Kim Riley, founder of The Transition Academy.

Riley's 21-year-old son was diagnosed with autism. During school meetings, Riley expected, “we're going to take him out and we're going to test drive some opportunities until we land on what he's meant to do."

Riley said that didn't happen. It was one of the reasons she founded The Transition Academy, a college and career preparation center. Although disability employment is on the rise, Riley said it’s not enough.

“If employment for the regular general population is 75% and we are at a record breaking high of 21%, that is nothing to be excited about, nothing to celebrate. That is a call to action,” Riley said.

The academy is hosting its second annual college and career fair, co-sponsored this year by the Sherwood Autism Centers and Down Syndrome Innovations.

Riley said the fair is unlike most where individuals leave with a collection of flyers — it's a one-stop shop for education, job training, employment openings and government assistance. Attendees can also participate in mock interviews and mini-workshops.

“[If] we're going to crack that 21% we cannot go through the motions and just do what we've always done,” Riley said.

Schools, employers and individuals to help register for government assistance will be on hand, ready to guide individuals through applications.

“We don't want this to just be a one-day event. It's a movement. We want to keep it going year-round,” said Riley.

KC DiversAbility College and Career Fair, 3-7 p.m. Thursday, Apr. 6 at MCC- Penn Valley, Education Center, 3201 Southwest Trafficway, Kansas City, Missouri 64111. Registration is recommended.

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