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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Jennifer Weston cleans and bags safety glasses at Columbus, a nonprofit service provider for people with disabilities, in South Salt Lake on Friday, March 23, 2018.

SOUTH SALT LAKE — With the state's jobless rate at historic lows, the ability for most Utahns to land gainful employment is relatively high. However, one segment of the state's population continues to struggle to find employers willing to give them a chance to work — people with disabilities.

According to Columbus, a nonprofit, community-based service provider for people with disabilities in South Salt Lake, individuals with disabilities face a 65 percent unemployment rate. The agency hosted its annual Bottom Line of Disabilities Economic Symposium Thursday, bringing together business and civic leaders, economists and community advocates to discuss the social, financial and economic impact that people with disabilities have in society.

Data proves that Utah’s economy can become even stronger through a model of employment that includes those with disabilities, explained Stephanie Mackay, chief innovation officer at Columbus Community Center. But employers have to be willing to take a chance to hire a disabled person if this issue is going to be properly addressed, she said.

"One out of five in the general population has a disability," she said. "We have a growing number of young adults with autism that are just staying at home because they have no opportunity. They're not joining their peers in the workplace."

The agency works to collaborate with employer partners to determine their needs and figure out how Columbus' prospective employee population could meet those skill requirements, she said.

"We (can) adapt our training and identify individuals who could be a good match," Mackay said. "We've really learned to help employers make accommodations and look at (disabled) workers through a 'different set of eyes.'"

One of the agency's key partners is Intermountain Healthcare — the state's largest private employer. For the past 12 years, Columbus has worked with the company to place individuals in a relationship that has become mutually beneficial for both entities, she said.

"We want to be mindful of individuals that can provide great work in our community that are overlooked because of disabilities," said Richard Bott, director of supply chain services for Intermountain Healthcare. He said the company hires people with disabilities in numerous capacities in an effort to create a more diverse work environment.

"We try and place individuals that are going to be well-suited for the environments that we have potential work for them," he said. "They work side-by-side with (able-bodied) employees that get to coach them, and it makes it a wonderful learning culture for our organization."

He acknowledged there were some challenges that had to be 'worked out' initially upon introducing the new employees into the established workplace, but they were able to mitigate any issues through proper "supervision and training," he said.

"(Since) getting (it) up and running, it's been really trouble-free, and it's provided tremendous workers to our staff," Bott said.

"They have a lot of abilities and there is a lot of value in what they bring," Mackay said.

Melanie Nielson is the parent of a disabled adult child with intellectual disabilities who found work through Columbus. She said the program has changed both their lives dramatically.

"I'm a single mom. If I don't have a job, I cannot put a roof over her head and pay the bills," Neilson said. "She's very dependent on me, but without her having somewhere to go and being in a functional environment where she is able to model behavior around other working individuals, she would be home alone and completely isolated from the community from other people while I'm trying to have a job and worry about her safety."

She said programs for the disabled are critical for families like hers who would be hard-pressed to make ends meet without them.

"It's critical to her having a job," she said. "Without Columbus having contracts with companies like (Intermountain Healthcare), she would not be able to have anywhere to go."

Neilson said she would one day like to see her 29-year old daughter living independently, which is only possible if she is able to make a living on her own.

"Feeling accomplished is something that every one of us needs to feel," Neilson said. "That's what this program does. It helps her feel like she is contributing to something."

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Elliot Francis, co-founder of Optimizing Autism — an advocacy organization for people with autism spectrum disorder — said getting more employers to realize the positive attributes people with disabilities can offer to their workplace is a hurdle that can difficult to overcome.

"Events like this provide an opportunity for the employers to come in and understand what it's like for the individuals on the autism spectrum," he said. "Because, at the end of the day, the best way to make the connection to provide (employment) opportunities is to bridge the communications gap that happens between neuro-typical individuals and those on the autism spectrum."