To achieve our full potential as a region, inclusive workforce development and training must be available to all residents who have the desire to work hard and earn a livable wage. A workforce where everyone contributes helps to stimulate the economy and make for a thriving St. Louis region. When a group of people are left out, it hinders us all and prevents us from growing.
Individuals with disabilities often face many barriers when it comes to finding gainful employment. Among some of those barriers are biases and unfair hiring practices, lack of transportation, some companies’ unwillingness to provide reasonable accommodations, and more.
Studies show that in 2021, the unemployment rate for individuals with disabilities was about 10 percent, twice as high as the unemployment rate for those without disabilities. Ensuring that all people have access to job training and workforce opportunities are critical to creating a healthier, stronger, and more equitable region. United Way partner agency, Starkloff Disability Institute is raising awareness about inclusion for individuals with disabilities.
Starkloff was founded in our region nearly two decades ago with a focus on helping individuals with disabilities participate equally in all aspects of society. One of their main areas of focus are ensuring these individuals are provided the knowledge and resources to have thriving professional careers.
They work with companies to help eliminate bias and implement diversity, equity and inclusion efforts for individuals with disabilities. They also work to prepare people for job seeking by teaching them how to disclose a disability to an employer, and how to not let their disability define them or prevent them from reaching their goals.
Starkloff CEO, Lori Becker, said the key to their success has been evaluating everyone’s unique challenges and determining how to overcome them.
“The most important aspect is diving deep into each person and helping them determine their strengths as a person with a disability and how that is going to translate into their job interview and into their future career,” Becker said. “Every individual that comes to us gets a lot of one-on-one attention and service, and it is really up to them to determine their career path and we work to support whatever that career path is.”
One of their most notable workforce development programs is the Career Academy. It is a 10-week professional development program that teaches job seekers how to market themselves to potential employers. About 100 local people participate through the program every year and over 80 percent of the participants go on to find meaningful employment.
Becker believes this program gives participants the confidence to believe in themselves by providing them with a strategic path to success.
“We wanted to help empower our participants to become more confident in their job search,” said Becker. “We have a very high success rate, we’re very proud of that, and we’re proud of the candidates we serve.”
One individual helped through the program was Julie, who became disabled in 2011 and was looking for support and assistance in navigating this new journey. Through Starkloff, she found people who understood her, she found her safe space.
“One of the things I really struggled with, is when say I have a disability, I see doors close,” said Julie. “What Starkloff really helped me do is find a sense of self, they helped me tell my story and articulate what I needed in a workplace. They taught us how to ask for those accommodations that we need from a position of power.”
Overcoming workforce bias
In order for biases in the workforce to change towards individuals with disabilities, companies also have to be more inclusive in their hiring and employment practices and how they support individuals with disabilities. In addition to working with individuals, Starkloff partners with companies throughout the St. Louis region through supervisor trainings, employee workshops and provides resources to help companies identify areas for improvement in creating an inclusive workplace environment.
Ameren recently partnered with Starkloff through an employee resource group, Powering Connections for All Abilities (PCAA), to support their mission to engage, empower and include people of all abilities.
“We reached out to Starkloff to see how they could help in educating our co-workers on disability inclusion, and we found that they lead numerous interactive workshops, simulations and demonstrations to help us reach our disability awareness goals,” said Amir Lilenthal, former president of PCAA. “Starkloff’s team of experts have a wide range of disability initiatives to help companies put practices in place to successfully hire, train and retain professionals with disabilities.”
United Way’s support and funding of Starkloff’s programs and services ensure that they are able to provide safe spaces for people like Julie, and diversity, equity and inclusion training to companies like Ameren. United Way began partnering with Starkloff in 2020, and Becker said they are proud to be supported by United Way.
“The continual, sustainable funding from United Way is something that we know we can rely on every month for general operating support, and we are so grateful,” said Becker. “Being a part of United Way’s safety net comes with a lot of benefits, there are opportunities for training, grants, and additional resources that have been wonderful for our organization. It feels like we are a part of United Way’s community and it’s reassuring.”
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