Featured Article! Lifting the stigma: Programs, services prepare adults with disabilities for employment

Juneau County Star Times

May 16, 2017


Yael Kerzan of Pardeeville works on a labeling machine at Northwoods Incorporated in Portage on May 5. Kerzan, who was born with William Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder, also holds a part-time job at Walmart. Kerzan said employer misconceptions about hiring people with disabilities can sometimes be tough to overcome.

Lifting the stigma: Programs, services prepare adults with disabilities for employment

Editor’s note: This is the third story in a four-part series examining the people, families and services working for those with differing abilities.

Yael Kerzan’s face lights up when she talks about juggling two jobs at both Walmart and Northwoods Incorporated of Wisconsin.

Kerzan, 35, was born with William Syndrome or WS, a rare genetic disorder characterized by medical problems, developmental delays and learning disabilities. For people with disabilities, finding employment can often be complex and frustrating, but Kerzan has enjoyed a rewarding experience.

Kerzan has found work opportunities through Northwoods since 2002, and will be celebrating 13 years at Walmart this summer. As a part-time employee at Walmart in Portage, Kerzan cleans “dust bunnies” underneath shelves, returns products to the service desk and assists customers — among other duties. Northwoods, also located in Portage, provides Yael with a job coach to monitor her daily tasks.

“I like seeing my peers every day, getting my paycheck and learning new things,” Kerzan said. “When my friends come see me at Walmart, they always say I’m doing a good job. It makes me feel happy.”

At Northwoods, Kerzan helps with various light manufacturing duties at the company’s work site facility. Northwoods, a not-for-profit organization, provides many rehabilitation services to adults with disabilities, frail seniors and families in need in the area, including Columbia County and portions of Sauk County. Kerzan became familiar with Northwoods in high school when she was preparing for the transition from ending school to entering the workforce.

“We realized it would be a wonderful opportunity, once she graduated from school, to develop her skills so she could be a good employee in the community,” said Dallas Kerzan, Yael’s mom.

The training Yael Kerzan received at Northwoods provided her with valuable “soft skills” employers value.

“Those include many things, from learning how to talk to people, how to attend to a task for hours at a time and how to take direction from other people besides teachers and family members,” Dallas Kerzan said.

Her mother said Kerzan is considered intellectually and developmentally disabled. She has difficulty determining spatial relations and has a tough time with numbers and abstract reasoning. Because of this, daily tasks can be daunting. In some ways, however, Kerzan’s disability has provided some extraordinary gifts.

“WS gave her striking verbal abilities, a highly social personality and an affinity for music,” Dallas Kerzan said.

Her friendly personality, work ethic, and willingness to learn new skills haven’t been lost on her employers.

“My peers and my supervisors are so nice to me,” Yael Kerzan said. “I love to learn something new every day. I just love it here. It’s what I live for and what I get up in the morning to do and look forward to.”

Jeff Aerts, President and CEO of Northwoods, said teaching soft skills are the first step toward steady employment.

“We don’t want to have our folks hired out of charity or feeling sorry for them, we want them to be valuable employees to a businessperson because that is going to keep them on the job,” said Carol Aerts, who also helps clients at Northwoods. “We also want to make sure it’s a good fit for the employer, they know what to expect, and it provides a service they need.”

Advocacy is key

Places like Northwoods, which was established more than 40 years ago, can only go so far in providing support and services for individuals with disabilities. Often times, advocacy to benefit programs has to come from the person seeking it.

For more than a decade, the Kerzans have met with state and federal legislators to push for more programs, which lead to greater independence in the workforce. In June, they will attend the SourceAmerica Grassroots Advocacy Conference in Washington, D.C. SourceAmerica is a non-profit designed to assist other organizations in providing employment for people who are blind or have other significant disabilities.

Local Aging and Disability Resource Centers (ADRCs) have also advocated for disability rights. In Juneau County, staff members and people with disabilities attend an annually legislative advocacy day at the state capitol in Madison. Funding increases is often tied to budgetary decisions, but it’s important to have a voice at the table to stress the importance of work programs.

Jessica Hoehn, disability benefit specialist for the Juneau County ADRC, has 103 clients. Hoehn helps provide public assistance benefits, social security and Medicare information, and works to find housing. Director Char Norberg said ADRCs have been around since 2008, but it’s only been in the past year that the Juneau County organization has improved its outreach efforts to people in the community.

“We have seen an increase in service requests and all of the staff stays very busy,” Norberg said. “But we never turn anyone away here.”

Another agency helping adults with disabilities is the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR), a branch of the state’s Department of Workforce Development (DWD). According to the DWD, DVR serves about 17,000 persons with disabilities. Tyler Tichenor, communications specialist for DWD, said through legislation passed in 2013, “the waiting list for category 2 DVR consumers, those with significant disabilities, was eliminated in 2015 for the first time since 2004 and remains at zero today.”

In Sauk County, DVR has two vocational rehabilitation counselors at its Baraboo office, along with a consumer case coordinator. According to Tichenor, 176 customers in the area use services provided through the program.

Nick Lampone serves as the area 10 director for DVR. Lampone said DVR offers a variety of services based on an individual’s needs.

“We provide vocational counseling and guidance and all of our counselors are licensed professionals,” Lampone said. “DVR will also contract with service providers to work with that individual. That could mean a person needs a little assistance working on their resume, help with improving their interview skills and then they’re good to go. Some individuals need more intensive services, someone to help provide job coaching, more one-on-one training to help perform the services of the job.”

Along with Baraboo, DVR also covers areas in Sauk City and Reedsburg. Services for people with disabilities have come a long way since the 1970s. Lampone said the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973 helped pave the way for DVR services. Before that time, it was very difficult for people with disabilities to find any sort of employment.

For Kerzan and other adults with disabilities, the joy of contributing to the workforce can’t be matched.

“It sure beats just sitting at home,” she said. “I love going to work and getting that paycheck.”

VARC and Insite provide help

Similar to Northwoods, VARC also began in the mid-1970s with humble beginnings.

VARC started in a church basement in Viroqua with just six clients and has grown to include more than 600 today. A group of parents started the program to provide resources for students with disabilities as they transitioned from school to the workforce.

“We now provide a number of different services including employment training services, job development placement services, life skills, and enrichment skills to clients all over central and western Wisconsin,” said executive vice president Elizabeth Filter.

Through the decades, VARC expanded to both Juneau and Sauk counties, and through Insite, provide supported employment services. VARC has four on-site employment locations in Viroqua, Richland Center, Reedsburg and Necedah, which offer pre-vocational services. Through contracts with both large and small manufacturers, clients work on assembling and packaging products, but also learn other valuable skills.

“They learn soft skills, like how to work in a team, ask questions from your supervisor, clock in for the day, how to follow a schedule,” Filter said. “It also works well as an introduction for people who are reentering the workforce or maybe have never had employment before. That’s a very large service we provide.”

Through Insite, employees with disabilities receive assistance in applying and securing job opportunities. Filter said VARC also partners with DVR to refer individuals to companies for employment.

“All of the community employment positions we develop are through Insite and that’s the difference between VARC and Insite,” Filter said. “VARC provides the on-site employment training, while Insite does the community business development for our clients.

Stigma still exists

While programs have provided training and skills for workers with disabilities, some employers are still hesitant to hire someone who is disabled.

Chelsea Stanek, 29, loves her part-time job at Hillsboro High School. The Union Center resident, who is confined to a wheelchair, works about 10 hours a week at the school. She assists teachers and students in the school’s special education department. Stanek volunteered for more than three years until school administrators made it a paid position in January.

“I was really excited about that because that’s what I was going for,” Stanek said. “I really enjoy it. I was surprised how much I like working with the kids. I wanted to gain more independence this year and this job helps with that.”

The general public can make assumptions about people in wheelchairs. Stanek said there is still work to be done to lift the stigma of persons with disabilities.

“They see a person in a wheelchair and think ‘Oh, maybe I shouldn’t talk to that person,’ or they assume things and they really don’t get to know the person,” Stanek said. “They might think ‘Oh, are they retired? Why are you in a wheelchair?’ I get asked that a lot by kids. I’m sure employers have to think about these issues because they wonder if they can do a good job.”

Through her job in Hillsboro, Stanek returned to the school district she grew up in. Being in a small school, Stanek believes she was shielded from the effects of bullying. She was a wrestling cheerleader in high school and sang in the choir. Stanek was a shy student, but said the activities helped her break out of her shell and gain self-confidence.

Stanek was born three months premature. She was very small as an infant and doctors found bleeding on her brain. Stanek was able to use her legs after birth, but eventually lost most of her feeling below the waist.

“I was told I could kick both my legs when I was a baby,” Stanek said with a laugh. “I was quite the kicker. But I’ve been in a wheelchair since I was very small.”

After graduating from Hillsboro High, Stanek earned an associate’s degree in administrative assistance from Western Technical College. From 2011-13, she worked as an administrative assistant for Champion House in Hillsboro and was grateful for the opportunity. Champion House provides housing for people with severe disabilities. She was able to land the job through family friends, but after a couple years, there wasn’t enough work to keep her employed.

Stanek credits Kim and Snapper Verbsky, owners of the Champion House, for giving her a chance. The Verbskys have a teenage daughter who is wheelchair bound.

“She is graduating this year and is going to the University of Illinois,” Stanek said. “She is a smart cookie and her disability is more severe than mine.”

Stanek hasn’t had trouble finding work, but will probably never have a full-time position. She gets tired easily so spending eight or more hours a day at work would be tough. Stanek must also watch her hours closely to claim Social Security benefits.

“They are very tight on how much you can make and how much you can work,” Stanek said. “I have to be very careful with that. It’s a pain in the butt and can be very difficult.”

Transportation can be a hurdle

Transportation can be one of the biggest obstacles in finding and maintaining employment. Stanek is learning to drive and has a temporary license. Family members take Stanek to work, but for some, finding transportation can be difficult, especially in rural areas without public transit services.

“That is probably the biggest issue, because it often keeps people in their homes,” said Norberg from the Juneau County ADRC.

Most ADRCs provide transportation through volunteer drivers. Northwoods provides a bus service to job sites.

For persons with disabilities in the area, there are many programs that provide work assistance. Local ADRCs serve as a good starting point, including the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation.

“Working is something I like to do and I want to do,” Stanek said.

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