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P.I. celebrates National Disability Employment Awareness Month

While each October brings with it blustery weather and an outpouring of support for Breast Cancer Awareness, this month also celebrates a cause near and dear to the hearts of many Newton residents: National Disability Employment Awareness Month. This initiative strives to emphasize the skills and contributions that those with disabilities of any degree can offer to their local communities. 

Progress Industries serves as a prime example of the support system available to individuals with disabilities in Newton as well as a large facilitator in helping these individuals find employment. 

P.I., which opened its doors in 1979, offers a variety of programs, classes and workshops, all aimed at enabling those with disabilities to integrate themselves into the community in whatever capacity they are able. While decades ago, P.I. was comprised solely of a workshop where clients could complete contracted work in a safe environment, P.I.’s services have evolved exponentially since — as has Newton’s awareness of the services the organization offers.

“The evolution of awareness began with the workshop, and then it grew to the housing program where we owned homes scattered throughout Newton and we had folks living in their own homes,” explained Melissa Butler, communications director for the P.I. Foundation. “It’s just continued to evolve with supportive employment and folks working in the community and it just keeps moving — that’s why [NDE Awareness Month] is good, and hopefully soon this level of awareness will be the norm.” 

According to data contained in the Iowans with Disabilities report for 2011, just 6 percent of Iowa’s full-time workforce was considered disabled. Within this 6 percent, just 56.7 percent worked either full- or part-time within the last 12 months. Despite common interpretations of the term, “disabled” can refer to any number of conditions a client may experience, according to Pam Herrema, director of mental health and vocation at P.I.

“A disability could be a peanut allergy that is so severe that it puts you in the hospital,” Herrema said. “It could be an addiction to alcohol, or it could be seizures.  When people think of disability, they think of physical or a mental disability, but a lot of people have hidden disabilities like heart problems that prevent them from working.”

This is where P.I. steps in. 

“When we graduate from high school, the expectation is that we go to college or go to work — we’re not asked ‘Do you want to work?’” she said. “Why is it different for any other person coming out of high school with a disability? It should be the expectation that everybody can work and can contribute something — it’s just a matter of finding out what that is and what the right fit is for them. That’s really what we try to do when we do job development is to find out what their skills, interests and abilities are, and try to match that to a workplace.”

In addition to the vocational training that P.I. offers, individuals oftentimes begin in the COPE Program, which is designed for “people with mental health concerns to increase their potential for vocational success by creating a work setting in which their symptoms will be more effectively managed and reduced,” per P.I.’s website. COPE provides clients with meaningful work in addition to a paycheck — a first for many program participants. 

Herrema pointed out, however, that the COPE Program is designed to be transitional rather than permanent for the individuals it serves.

“Several years ago we started limiting the COPE Program to three days a week,” she said. “We don’t want people to get comfortable here. We’ve changed the language [regarding COPE] — it’s not if you want to get a job, but when you decide you’re ready to get a job.”

When a client becomes comfortable with the idea of working a job out in the community, he or she works closely with a job coach in searching for employment that suits his or her capabilities, interests and goals. Experiencing what it’s like to work a particular job before beginning full-time is also a key factor to the program’s success. Individuals seeking employment will often be given a few days to gauge just how well a particular job’s requirement align with what they’d like to achieve. 

“We’re setting a lot of experiences up like that with employers, and we’re finding out that when they see the person and their skills and not the disability, the response is very positive,” Herrema said. “We’ve had people hired on the spot because employers can see the ability and not the disability.” 

In fact, this system has helped P.I. place 25 individuals with disabilities in jobs throughout the community over the course of the past year. 

“We have the most dedicated, dependable and enthusiastic workforce,” said Butler of the individuals P.I. serves. “Whether they’re in the center or find a job in the community, the change in them [as they begin a job] is unbelievable — especially if it’s a job they really like.” 

While the benefits of participating in meaningful work are clear and present in the people P.I. helps to employ, the push toward full integration of disabled individuals to the workforce ultimately benefits the entire community as well. 

“These employees become tax-paying citizens,” Herrema said. “They have money and they can go spend in the community. It’s good for everybody — it’s good for the community, for the employer and for the employee.”

Next week, in honor of NDE Awareness Month, we’ll be profiling five individuals who have successfully secured employment in Newton through work with P.I., detailing the goals they’ve reached and the obstacles they’ve faced along the path to independence.

“We want to help them to have a meaningful and fulfilling life, just like anyone else,” Herrema said. 

“Living in the community, working in the community — it’s what we all do and what we want the folks we serve to be able to do as well,” Butler said. “That’s central to our mission statement here.”

Nicole Wiegand can be contacted at (641) 792-3121 ext. 422 or via email at

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