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Employers should focus on strengths disabilities bring, experts say

Published: Monday, July 14 2014 7:00 p.m. MDT

Christopher Charles, who has autism, talks about his 3-D modeling work during the Social Financial and Economic Impact in our Communities symposium at Columbus Community Center in Salt Lake City Monday, July 14, 2014.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — People are like dandelions: They can be seen as a benefit or a detriment, depending on the perspective of the viewer.

Little children love dandelions, according to Thorkil Sonne, founder of Specialisterne, a nonprofit organization that seeks to expand job opportunities and provide training for people with autism spectrum disorders.

Children scatter the flowers' seeds and shape them into necklaces. As they age, they often begin to see the flowers as weeds.

In order to have a nice lawn, adults will spray and kill these flowers, not realizing they can be used for nutrition and as herbs, Sonne said. Each person is a seed from a dandelion, he said, and may land on ground that is hostile or friendly when they enter the job force, either allowing the flower to blossom or preventing it from taking root.

"The flower's the same, but you have changed," Sonne said. "If you see a person who is peculiar, who is not like you, don’t regard this person automatically from a weed perspective. There could be a lot of herbs in there.”

Sonne spoke to a group of civic, business and nonprofit leaders gathered Monday at the Columbus Community Center for "The Bottom Line of Disabilities: The Social Financial and Economic Impact in Our Communities" symposium. Through a series of panels, the group discussed the economic benefits of employing people with disabilities and the importance of viewing others for their strengths rather than what holds them back.

About 9.2 percent of Utahns have a disability, according to the 2013 Annual Disability Statistics Compendium. Students who have disabilities in Utah face a 12.7 percent unemployment rate, compared with 5.8 percent of students without a disability, according to the Utah State Office of Education.

In 2014, the Utah State Office of Rehabilitation helped 3,665 people with disabilities find work in industrial, sales, professional, service and other occupations. Disabilities range from mental illnesses to amputation, and the needs for each individual are just as diverse, according to Kyle Walker, director of Utah's Division of Rehabilitation Services.

The numbers show an economic boost from employing those who are disabled. The 3,665 employed in Utah in 2013 saw a 442 percent increase in weekly earnings, from $256,384 to nearly $1.4 million collectively.

For every dollar spent by the state in vocational rehabilitation programs, it receives a $5.64 return on interest, according to the University of Utah Center for Public Policy and Administration. The returns are just as important for those who receive the services, according to experts in the field.

"Vocational success is critical. It just leads to a sense of functional independence and quality of life," said Scott Wright, a professor of nursing and co-founder of NeuroVersity at the U. "This is about ability and strengths versus, 'Let's just talk about the deficits or the disorder.' This is new way of looking at ability."

Wright was among those at the symposium credited with working to locate opportunities for people with disabilities. NeuroVersity is working on a pilot program with the Columbus Community Center, which is working with the Utah State Office of Rehabilitation and SourceAmerica, a nonprofit that also finds jobs for people with disabilities, to foster partnerships in Utah to secure jobs that use the strengths of people with disabilities.

Pilot program

Stephen Sargetakis, 14, has used skills he gained from NeuroVersity to secure freelancing gigs and teach others as a contract employee.

He is one of three peer instructors mentoring seven other teens who are learning to use SketchUp Make, a free 3-D modeling program. These students are all on the autism spectrum. With their knowledge, they are working with an employee from Big-D Construction to create 3-D renderings from two-dimensional plans.

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