Local Look at National Disability Employment Awareness Month

This article was originally distributed by the Lyon County Reporter and was written by Dominique Kooiker. You can reach Dominique at dkooiker@ncppub.com.

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As soon as the doorbell jingles to let those behind the counter at Rosie's know they have a customer, patrons are greeted by a smiling young man who is eager to help serve them. This young man is 19-year-old Caden Wright, recent graduate of Central Lyon High School.

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month and is observed annually to celebrate the contributions of American workers with disabilites. Wright's story is a perfect example of what this month is meant to highlight.

Kristi Wright is Caden's mom and a special education teacher at Central Lyon. She and her husband, Chris, openly share about Caden's journey, hoping their story will inspire others.

"Caden has DiGeorge syndrome, which is a deletion on the 22nd chromosome, q11, so one arm of his 22nd chromosome, the 11th arm, has a tiny deletion on it, and that's what's caused all of his issues. He had his first open-heart surgery when his was seven hours old," Kristi explained.

Caden's main health issues are his heart (he has Tetralogy of Fallot with absent PDA), has scoliosis and is immunocompromised. He has also had a kidney removed, urine airway surgeries, a foot surgery and many - about 38 surgeries in all - throughout his lifetime.

As a high school graduate, Caden wanted to enter the workforce. Staff with Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services help identify opportunities for Caden and many others and provide resources to help them transition from school to the workplace. This service is an employment program for individuals who experience a disability, and focuses on assisting individuals prepare for, obtain, retain and advance in employment.

Emily Hoogland is a rehabilitation counselor with Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services who serves high school students in the area.

"Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services works with students on pre-employment transition skills which include job exploration counseling, work-based learning, workplace readiness training, self-advocacy instruction and counseling on opportunities," explained Hoogland.

Dori Horstman, a transition alliance program instructor with Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services, works directly with Caden and other students at Central Lyon and West Lyon high schools.

"The process start by getting to know the students and helping them identify their likes, dislikes, preferences, skills and weaknesses. We do thorough assessments and activities and have many conversations. I also gain a lot of information from those who know them best, including their parents and teachers," explained Horstman. "Then we come up with a list of various jobs the students would like to learn more about, and I set up either non-paid work experiences with businesses where students get to actually learn to do the job for several weeks, or we line up job shadows where students to get to observe someone doing their job for a day," she said. "Hopefully from those experiences they find a job they like and then we work with a business to hire them, if possible. This process can take two or three years if necessary."

Caden had several work study opportunities throughout high school. Some of the jobs he liked and others he didn't. Two of the employers from his work studies agreed to keep Caden on staff after graduation.

Cade says he enjoys each of his jobs and loves talking with his coworkers. He works at Trendz Salon, Rosie's Boutique and Union Jacks Grill in Rock Rapids. His favorite task at Trendz is folding the towels, and he especially enjoys working at Rosie's and Union Jacks when they are busy. Caden likes making fancy coffee at Rosie's, and he loves greeting all of the customers at Union Jacks. When people ask Caden which of his three jobs is his favorite, his immediate response is, "All of them."

Brenda Jepsen of Trendz Salon is glad to have Caden at her salon.

"The school reached out to me and asked me if Caden could do his senior work study here, and I said 'Absolutely.' Then when the school year was coming closer to an end, Dori Horstman reached out to me and asked if I would consider keeping Caden on after he graduated just for like skills and learning things for him. I said 'Of course, we will keep him on.' I love Caden. He keeps me on my toes. He's not afraid to ask questions. I can't imagine my Tuesdays without Caden. He's just a good fit here," said Jepsen.

Kathy Schoeneman of Union Jacks Grill was also happy to bring Caden on staff.

"He's just a joy. He's always smiling. He's happy. He's grateful he's here. He is such an inspiration because he wants to work, and he's happy to be working. I'm the grandparent of an autistic child, and I believe everybody wants to count. Everybody should get to feel like they're needed and wanted and no different than anybody else," she said. "We need to give people chances and treat them just like they're like anybody else."

Renae Grooters of Rosie's Boutique agrees with Schoeneman's sentiment.

"Give people a chance. Caden blesses us just as much as this job blesses him, so just give people a chance and be patient," said Grooters.

Many people across Lyon County and beyond are inspired by Caden's story, and the community has been very accepting of Caden and his differences.

"I'm very thankful for the Rock Rapids community because I feel like they have embraced Caden and his differences. They don't look at him as a burden. I'm, thankful he has the opportunity to get out of the house and work. I'm very thankful we live in Rock Rapids because I don't have to worry about him during the day, and I know he's happy going to work at those three places," Kristi said.

Even though there are many opportunities Vocational Rehabilitation Services helps facilitate for individuals with disabilities, there are always barriers to be overcome.

I would say the biggest barrier for students can be employers not willing to give them a chance by hiring them. Fortunately, here in Lyon County, we have some amazing businesses and employers who are willing to work with us and hire students. I have really enjoyed building relationships with our businesses," said Horstman. "Some of the other barriers students may have include time, as it may take them longer to learn the tasks of the job, and stimulation, as some students may need a quieter environment to work or tasks broken down for them," she explained.

"Some common challenges we notice for individuals with disabilities in obtaining employment are a major lack of transportation, people and employers not being inclusive when it comes to working with individuals with a disability and an overall lack of knowledge or awareness in the community. When we are reaching out to potential employers, we sometimes encounter people who are not receptive or open-minded to allowing work experiences or even the potential for hire," said Hoogland. "If people would become more willing to learn and be uncomfortable in those certain situations, it would allow for growth. I hope people can start to look at the person for who they are and what they can do, rather than at their disability and how it limits them. If we can start shifting that mindset and encourage employers to give people with a disability a chance, they will recognize they are just as capable as other people that don't identify as having a disability," she said.

"I wish all businesses would give people with different abilities a chance. Every person is capable of helping in some way. They just need to be give the chance to help," Kristi said. "Every person wants to feel valuable and like a contributing part of society. They just need a chance."