The Ottumwa Courier

October 4, 2012

Job coaches helping employees with disabilities

Courier Staff Writer

OTTUMWA — Some employers have discovered a pool of talent their competitors may not be aware of: Iowans with disabilities can make great workers.

“We’ve found the people we work with to be honest, dependable. They want to work,” said Tracey Clawson. “And when they learn a job, they really learn it.”

Clawson is with Optimae’s Step Services, which provides supported employment for people with disabilities.

The goal of supported employment is to match an employee with an employer so that both benefit.

There are times someone with a disability can do a job but might physically need help filling out a job application. Or they need to find a way they can do the job just as well as anyone else but sit or stand in such a way that it’s their abilities that are put to use rather than having their disabilities stop them.

Job coaches are the staff members who go with a client to help them find work. Depending on the individual’s needs, the coach may spend a lot of time with them or very little.

“You look at a coach, like a football coach. We try to encourage, to solve problems, to teach new skills,” said Cindy Kurtz-Hopkins, a supervisor at First Resources.  

The coach doesn’t, however, carry the ball for their players during the game.

Several groups of coaches who work in Wapello County meet to discuss problems that face them all, to find solutions and, at least this month, to host events for National Disability Awareness Month.

The members of the Wapello County Supported Employment Group said some clients have a coach stop in for 15 minutes once each week. That may be enough to help the individual stay on task, overcome obstacles or communicate with the boss. Other coaches may stop in to see a client for an hour once per month.

“It really does help people keep jobs,” said Kurtz-Hopkins. “We’ve had some in the same job for 15 years.”

The secret to success? Finding the right job for the right employee with employees who want to work.

Clawson had a client  who wanted to have her own job. However, due to mental health issues, she had a great deal of difficulty getting along with anyone. She liked cleaning but not people.

So years ago, Clawson found the hard-working, grumpy-seeming woman a job cleaning at night. She still has the job and has grown tremendously. She seems to have much more self-esteem and has even been talking about getting her own place to live.

Coaches have seen other clients teaching job skills to new employees.

“That’s very rewarding,” said Pam Shepard of Tenco Industries.

One powerful tool is called the job assessment.

“We try the person in that position they’re interested in to see if that’s a good match for the employer and the employee,” said Shepard.

If that works out, the employer may demonstrate what they want done; the coach and employee then work together, practicing until the employee can do the tasks asked of them.

“A lot of them don’t want a disability check,” said Dawn Clark, social worker for the county. “They want to earn a check and get insurance through their employer, not Medicare.”

“Just like everybody else,” agreed Shepard. “They also become more independent.”

Some who were living on a disability check manage to get completely off of disability, food stamps and other assistance, she said. Many reduce the amount they accept from government programs, using the money they themselves earned.

“These are individuals who want to be part of the community, not just be sat in front of the TV all day,” added Kurtz-Hopkins.

Those who wish to show support for disability awareness can gather for a proclamation reading by Ottumwa Mayor Frank Flanders at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday in Central Park, next to City Hall.