Wisconsin becoming national leader in hiring disabled workers

By Jason Stein, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

LAKE DELTON - When Nate Kube lost a long-term convention center job, he struggled to find work β€” and his place.

Kube, who has cerebral palsy and epilepsy, got a new start through a program called Project Search. Last year, the 26-year-old front desk agent became associate of the year here among the 1,500 employees of Kalahari Resorts and Conventions.

"It made me feel like I had a sense of purpose again ... It was really hard for me to get back into the workforce. I almost wanted to give up, but coming into Project Search gave me a sense of purpose and it gave me some of my pride back," Kube said.

Stories like Kube's are becoming more common in Wisconsin. Driven by an expanding economy and work by GOP Gov. Scott Walker and Democratic lawmakers, Wisconsin is moving more disabled workers toward self-sufficiency.

The University of New Hampshire's Institute on Disability reports that between 2010 and 2015, the state moved from 16th in the nation to 10th in the share of disabled workers with jobs. In Wisconsin, 41% of disabled workers are employed, compared to 35% nationally.

Advocates see room for improvement for workers with hearing challenges or deafness. Health care also remains a concern as both Congress and statehouse Republicans consider overhauling Medicaid programs that are crucial for the disabled.

Overall, they say, the state is doing well.

"Of all the governors we've had in the past 20 years, (Walker) has probably been the most beneficial for people who want to work in the community," said Cathy Steffke, who focuses on employment issues for Disability Rights Wisconsin.

One bipartisan step came from a 2013 proposal from two Democrats, Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling of La Crosse and Rep. Katrina Shankland of Stevens Point. Walker signed the legislation to increase state spending by $2.1 million a year and capture roughly $7 million more annually in federal matching dollars for helping the disabled find work.

In 2014, Walker also highlighted the issue with his Better Bottom Line initiative, modeled after an effort by former Delaware Gov. Jack Markell.

In the two years since, the state Division of Vocational Rehabilitation has helped a record 9,490 disabled clients reach job goals, with the workers already earning in a single year roughly twice what it cost taxpayers to help them.

Wisconsin has ramped up Project Search, a national program including the state, local schools, service agencies for the disabled and employers such as Kalahari, the Milwaukee County Zoo and Froedtert Hospital.

Together, this team provides internships of up to one year for young people with disabilities. Most lead to a job.

This year's 164 interns are more than triple the number from two years ago.

At a graduation ceremony Tuesday, Walker told his audience about an autistic young woman who gravitates toward repeated actions. Project Search helped her take on a hospital job sterilizing equipment β€” a task that requires and rewards repetition.

β€œIt opened my eyes to the fact that Project Search is about identifying the unique abilities that people had instead of focusing on the disabilities ... That's why I said, 'We've got to expand this. We've got to grow this,' " Walker said.

Gov. Scott Walker and Kalahari Resort worker Nate Kube

Gov. Scott Walker and Kalahari Resort worker Nate Kube look on as Ala'a Southworth talks about the Lake Delton waterpark's participation in a program to employ young people with disabilities. (Photo: Jason Stein, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Ala'a Southworth, a graduate and concierge at Kalahari with cerebral palsy, recounted how his feelings there have turned from nervousness to a sense of accomplishment. In September, Southworth was an employee of the month.

"I just grow in strength with their guidance," he said of his co-workers.

Some advocates see more room for growth for the state.

Vincent Holmes, a former district director for the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, provided statistics showing that 70% of clients with hearing disabilities already had jobs when they came to his former agency for help. The state should consider serving more unemployed clients, he said.

Holmes and Katy Schmidt, president of the Wisconsin Association of the Deaf, also called for more state employment counselors who specialize in the needs of the deaf and hard of hearing.

"There is no DVR counselor in Wisconsin that is (American Sign Language) fluent," Schmidt said. "Multiple states around Wisconsin have at least one ASL-fluent or deaf and hard of hearing counselor."

At the same time, Institute on Disability figures still show Wisconsin employing a larger percentage of workers with hearing disabilities than the nation as a whole.

John Dipko, a spokesman for the state labor department, says the state has a different approach of using sign language interpreters and the agency's "SenseAbility" team, which provides training and resources for state counselors who work with clients with hearing and sight challenges.

"DVR staff has the qualifications and a proven track record of meeting the vocational rehabilitation needs of individuals with disabilities, including consumers who are deaf or blind," he said.