This program is opening pathways to employment for people with disabilities in Fort Wayne

Terry Helm has worked in the automotive and computer technology industries for most of his life. He’s been a teacher, technician, automotive assistant, and more.

But in early 2016, he was critically injured in a traumatic auto accident on I-69, leaving him an induced coma for more than a week.

“Ever since then, I’ve been fighting with rehab,” Helm says. “I was in a bed for about a year, lying down. I had therapists coming into my house, and they did wonders for me.”

After about a year of physical therapy, he could stand again, and over the years, Fort Wayne’s services for people with disabilities, like Turnstone Center, have helped him become mobile again with a walker.

But for active people with disabilities, breaking into the local workforce can be a challenge.

“My knowledge is there, and it was going to waste when I was sitting there in a bed,” Helm says. “When you’re off work, it feels like the world is leaving you behind.”

An initiative housed at Greater Fort Wayne (GFW) Inc. is working to address this challenge. Known as the Employing People with Disabilities Initiative, it works with local service providers to connect qualified applicants like Helm with ready-to-hire employers in Fort Wayne.

Kevin Morse, director of disability employer resources at GFW Inc., says the initiative has been working well since it launched in April 2018 because it creates a win-win scenario for employers and people with disabilities alike.

“Across the community, we have more job openings than we have job candidates,” Morse explains.

On the flip side of the equation, people with disabilities also experience high levels of unemployment nationwide.

In 2018, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that people with disabilities were more likely to experience joblessness across all levels of educational attainment. In fact, only 19.1 percent of people with disabilities were employed in 2018, compared to 65.9 percent of people without disabilities.

More than a year into the initiative, Morse says business leaders are now starting to actively reach out to GFW Inc. so they can hire people with disabilities.

“Disability doesn’t mean you can’t do something,” Helm says. “Matter of fact, (people with disabilities) have more mind power to say, ‘I’m going to do that,’ or ‘I’m going to figure out how to get that done.’”

Helm, right, was hired at Ridge NAPA where he is now able to put his talents to use working behind the auto parts counter.

That's where Morse comes in. He builds relationships with companies and with disabilities service providers; when a company is ready to hire, he connects the two communities to help find the right candidates. In Ridge NAPA's case, they worked with an employment specialist at Goodwill to interview Helm and, eventually, bring him on board.

Helm was hired at Ridge NAPA in the fall of 2018 where he is now able to put his talents to use working behind the auto parts counter.

Andrew Thomas, the company’s owner, says that as an employer, the decision to hire people with disabilities comes down to having a more open mind.

“All we have to do is open our eyes a little bit,” Thomas says. “You just have to break down some stereotypes, break down some barriers in your mind, and think of it differently.”

For Helm, having a job where he can use his skills has made all the difference.

“It’s gotten me out in the work field,” he says. “It’s given me self-worth again.”

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