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People with disabilities undaunted by quest for work

Tim Carter of Cheektowaga is looking for a job. He says he is a hard worker, a fast learner and good with customers.

He also has an attention deficit disorder and mild Tourette’s syndrome, and, like many people with disabilities, he does not want that to be a barrier to being employed.

“I’d like to find something that feels like it could turn into a career,” Carter said Wednesday during a job fair at the Central Library in downtown Buffalo. “I could start at entry level, but in other jobs you get the feeling that you will never go anywhere – there’s no future – and it hurts.”

Carter has had temporary jobs – he worked for the U.S. Census Bureau – and has done kitchen work. But now, at age 24, he wants something more permanent.

“I’m wanting to try my hand at customer service. It seems like something I could get into. I have no trouble talking to people, talking to strangers, when you know what they want, what to ask and how to help,” he said.

He also knows that finding a career-track job won’t be easy. The employment numbers for adults with disabilities can be discouraging: In New York State, according to the Governor’s Office, the employment rate for people ages 18 to 64 with a disability is about 31 percent, compared with 72 percent employment for all other adults.

And those who are not working pay the price. The state poverty rate for unemployed disabled adults is more than 28 percent, compared with 12.3 percent for people without disabilities.

Wednesday’s Autumn Diversity Career Fair was part of a continuing effort to change those numbers.

“The gap between people with disabilities who are employed and those who could be employed has been too wide for years,” said Dennis Martinez, an employment specialist with the state’s ACCES-VR training and placement program. “People with disabilities can do almost any job. There is no job that is completely unattainable.”

His optimism was embodied by some of the employed workers who shared their stories with the job-seekers Wednesday.

Abu Musa spoke passionately about the challenges he faced when he arrived here from Liberia in 2001, widowed with three children and no idea what to do next. He kept his empty right jacket sleeve tucked into his coat pocket while talking about his journey, which led him to a 10-year career at Wegmans.

“When I came here, my first barrier was English,” Musa said, calling that even more of a problem than the loss of his arm.

“It was so hard,” he said. But he said Andrea Todaro of Innovative Placements kept telling him, “You are going to get a job.”

And she was right, he said.

He started at Wegmans as a cashier. While also earning a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s at SUNY Buffalo State, he worked his way up to coordinator of knowledge-based customer service.

Wegmans is among several local employers who work closely with agencies to hire people with disabilities. Eric Hetzelt, 36, is another who found a place there, starting at the supermarket nearly 15 years ago, after studying culinary arts in high school.

“I had my People Inc. job coach help me through their supportive employment program,” said Hetzelt, who has Down syndrome.

“I slice cold cuts. I wait on customers. My job coach still comes to visit me at work sometimes, and checks in with my bosses.”

But like many people with disabilities, Hetzelt is able to work only part time.

According to information provided by People Inc., employees here who have cognitive disabilities had a mean annual income of $5,233, and, on a national level, such employees averaged 22 hours of work each week, lower even than people with other physical disabilities, who work an average of 31 hours a week.

Combine that with the Buffalo Niagara region’s overall unemployment rate of 6.1 percent, and the job search can be especially tough – made worse by the fact that only 45 percent of students with a disability get their high school diplomas, according to 2012 numbers from New York’s Commission of Education.

Despite the odds, the Buffalo office of ACCES-VR, serving the eight Western New York counties, reports that it helped about 1,200 people with disabilities find jobs in the last fiscal year.

Home Depot is one of the larger employers. Joel Feuerman, a human resources manager for the store in Lockport, made it clear that it is not merely a charitable gesture.

“As an employer, if you are able to hire a person with a developmental disability, you are hiring someone who already has problem-solving skills, commitment and innovative thought processes,” he said. “When you bring them into your organization, they bring those same problem-solving skills with them, which is a great help to our customers.”

For smaller employers, there can be other incentives. Martinez, of ACCES-VR, said the agency helps clients with training and gives employers financial assistance, including paying up to 100 percent of a worker’s wages through a tryout period of several weeks.

The state also offers a Workers with Developmental Disabilities Tax Credit, worth up to $5,000 to businesses for full-time employees and $2,5000 for part-timers who are on the job for more than six months.

In September, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo established the Employment First Commission with the goal of simultaneously increasing employment for people with disabilities and reducing their poverty rate. The commission also will register businesses with specific policies to hire people with disabilities.

Darlella Wiggins of the City of Tonawanda is hoping that more businesses take notice. She has a slight learning disability and has been looking for a job for about a year, getting help from a People Inc. counselor.

“My coach is working with me on trying to find a job and on keeping that job,” Wiggins said. She is 28, has culinary training and would like to work in a restaurant or in retail.

“My disability hasn’t hurt my ability to work – not at all,” she said. “If I have hands-on training, I can learn in a couple of days what might take other people more than a week to learn.”

Wiggins is hopeful that a recent application at a local store could work out. A manager told her that she was among those in the “yes” pile for consideration.

“I might hear in a couple of weeks. Until then, I’ll keep looking,” she said. “As long as you have the right motivation, you can’t get discouraged.”