Downsized out of his sales job, disabled veteran Bryan Bell went to Nebraska Vocational Rehabilitation for help finding another one. Counselors pushed him to take his career a step further and start his own business.
Today, Bell Photography is up and running, available for weddings, sports and commercial photography, and Bell said opportunities and support are out there for people with disabilities who want to work or start their own business.
Nebraska Vocational Rehabilitation is hosting a “Dress for Success” business clothing drive as part of its recognition of October as National Disability Employment Awareness Month.
Gently used business clothing can be dropped off through Friday at 12011 Q St. in Omaha. To have your items picked up or for more information, call 402-595-1736 or 402-595-3920.
All clothing will be donated to Heartland Family Service.
Nebraska Vocational Rehabilitation is a division of the Nebraska Department of Education. It helps people with disabilities prepare for, obtain and maintain employment while helping businesses recruit, train and retain employees with disabilities.
“A lot of people think you're in it by yourself, but you're really not,” he said.
Only about 22 percent of people with disabilities participate in the labor force, compared with 69 percent of people without disabilities. And those who want to work are unemployed at nearly twice the rate — 13.5 percent — of people without disabilities, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy.
Programs run by Nebraska Vocational Rehabilitation, the Department of Veterans Affairs and Goodwill Industries, among others, all train workers with vastly different abilities and help them prepare for and compete in the work force.
Having a disability doesn't mean a person can't be a productive worker, said Holly Schwietz, Work Experience program coordinator at Goodwill. “They're dedicated workers. They want to earn their way, too. Employment is the way to do it.”
With October as National Disability Employment Awareness Month, five Omaha-area people with disabilities spoke about how they are finding their place in the economy.
Jonathon Baker (pictured at top)
Age: 23. Employment: Goodwill retail store, 8310 Spring Plaza
Story: Jonathon Baker was in high school when he started working at Goodwill in the organization's Work Experience program for teenagers with disabilities who need preparation for competitive jobs in the work force.
“Sometimes it was hard, because I wasn't understanding the customers,” Baker said, using sign language interpreted by Work Experience coordinator Holly Schwietz. But he stuck with it, earning praise for his work ethic, and was rewarded with a job there after graduation.
Now Baker collects and sorts donations at the 84th Street and West Center Road Goodwill. He communicates by reading lips, speaking some, writing notes and texting his supervisor.
He lives with his girlfriend and takes the bus to work. He uses his retail income and Supplemental Security Income to pay his bills. The Ralston High School graduate wants to attend the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
“It's possible for deaf (people) to do anything,” he said. “I'm thinking about a better life.”
Age: 53. Employment: Owner, Ascent Tutoring
Story: The fatigue brought on by multiple sclerosis forced Pam Baltzer out of her career as a chemistry professor at the College of St. Mary. But it isn't keeping her from her “true passion” of teaching. When she couldn't complete the doctoral work necessary for her college position, Baltzer left teaching to work full time in the lab of an Omaha hospital and said she has not had to rely on disability benefits.
Baltzer also this year launched her private tutoring service specializing in science, math and computers. A backpacker, she named it “Ascent” to represent the effort it takes to reach the summit. She got a start-up grant and business planning assistance from Nebraska Self Employment Services, a program of the Abilities Fund and Nebraska Vocational Rehabilitation.
“For me, the minute you give up is the minute I let my disability win.”
Age: 45. Employment: Grounds maintenance, VA hospital
Story: Of all the work he's ever done, Ed Driscoll says, his current job is the best. Pushing a lawn mower, driving a Gator, wielding a leaf blower — Driscoll helps keep the grounds tidy at the Omaha VA Medical Center.
Raised in Omaha, Driscoll has a developmental disability along with arthritic knees. Through Goodwill's federal AbilityOne contract, Driscoll and others with disabilities handle maintenance and postal services at federal facilities around the state. In the winter, Driscoll works at the Bellevue ENCOR workshop. He makes wooden stakes used in maintenance and construction.
In his free time, Driscoll bowls at Leopard Lanes next to his apartment in Bellevue, usually in the 130s. But he said his job is what he looks forward to.
“I leave my problems at home. I have a smile on my face.”
Age: 52. Employment: Self-employed, Ms. Lucy's Shea Butter Products
Story: Thea Scott's 16-year career at Mutual of Omaha ended when she developed fibromyalgia, which includes symptoms of joint and muscle pain. She left her job in 1996, the same year she said she suffered a mental breakdown.
It took Scott six years to qualify for Social Security disability benefits. “I didn't look like anything was wrong with me,” she said.
Today she is putting her accounting degree to work keeping track of her own sales data. With business planning assistance from Nebraska Self Employment Services, Scott started her own company, Ms. Lucy's Shea Butter. She makes and sells moisturizer, lip balms and perfume made with shea butter, earning while managing her stress.
“Being an entrepreneur allows me to work at my own pace,” Scott said.
Age: 55. Employment: Janitorial services, VA hospital
Story: When Martin Smith talks about all the ways he's grateful for the Department of Veterans Affairs, he points to his eyes, his ears and his heart. The Army veteran — he joined up after high school and worked as a computer key punch operator — said he owes his eyeglasses, his hearing aids and his new aortic valve to the agency.
Smith had a job cleaning in a local hospital when heart problems limited his abilities. So after leaving his job in 2009, he spent his retirement funds and relied on subsidized housing until the VA stepped in and provided the heart surgery he needed.
Smith now lives in transitional housing for veterans funded by a VA grant and is in the VA's compensated work therapy program.
Smith said he's grateful the experience will provide him with references and a recent work history, because there aren't many opportunities for a 55-year-old man without a college degree, especially one who has been out of work for two years.
His goal is to become self-supporting again. “I feel it's possible to transition back into society.”