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Leibforth: Can the disabled community spur economic growth?

Community Voice

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014 12:53 p.m. CDT
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Katherine Leibforth is foundation director of the West Suburban Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Smart business owners know that there are two important ingredients to improving their bottom line: Spend less, sell more. They also know that employee retention saves money and that a loyal customer creates profits. 

What business owners may have failed to consider is that, statistically, employees with disabilities have a higher rate of retention than other employees. Also, people with disabilities represent 1 in 5 American consumers, and spend $150 billion annually in the United States. So, members of our communities with varying abilities make great consumers, particularly if they are employed.  

Last year, Gov. Pat Quinn passed the Employment First bill, promising people with disabilities employment opportunities. Then we waited for something to happen. The La Grange Area Department of Special Education (LADSE) didn’t wait. They got together with their friends at Helping Hand Center and The Illinois Department of Rehabilitation Services and got started. They contacted Project Search, an internationally proven employment initiative for people with disabilities that takes students from school to permanent work via total immersion training in the workplace. It has 280 successful programs across 40 states and four countries. 

LADSE and its partners will pilot the first Project Search program in the state of Illinois. Karen Steffan, LADSE director of vocational programs, believes that the biggest deterrents to employment for people with disabilities are misconceptions and low expectations.

Steffan recognizes that the success of Project Search is largely dependent on the partnership of business, education and community.

“Everyone has their dream job, their personal talents and skills – including people with disabilities. Employment training programs like this allow for dreams to become reality,” she said. 

LADSE, DRS and Helping Hand have taken an important step toward that employment promise made by Gov. Quinn. Now they’re waiting for the business community to respond with the inclusionary mentality required for such a vibrant and progressive employment idea to get people to work. 

A meeting of LADSE’s Project Search Business Advisory Committee will be held on Jan. 30 at 6:30 pm at the Helping Hand Center. Families of students will disabilities are invited to attend to discover how they can assist with the development of this initiative in Illinois. 

To get more information about Project Search, or to find out how you can join the West Suburban Chamber of Commerce in advocating for people with disabilities, please contact Chamber Program Director Katherine Leibforth, at 708-387-7550 or katherinel@wscci.org.

Katherine Leibforth is foundation director for the West Suburban Chamber of Commerce and Industry

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