Tom and Kristi Cronnelly are no strangers to the barriers disabled people face when they seek to break into the workforce.
For some, the process is less like breaking the glass ceiling and more like tearing down a brick wall.
As for the Cronnellys, they know the issues well.
Kristi is a job coach with Silver Bow Developmental Disabilities Council Inc. They also have an 18-year-old son with autism who works 30 minutes a week at a local candy shop, while the couple employs about 12 disabled people at their Uptown restaurant OMG! Mongolian Grill.
That’s why when they got to talking about the problems faced by disabled workers and the service providers that support them with Jules Castiglioni, an employment specialist with SBDDC, it only seemed natural to plan an awareness-raising event at their restaurant.
The event is called “OMG! I have a job!” and is designed to benefit disabled people, employers, and service providers.
The event will run 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Oct. 24 at OMG, 17 N. Main St., and will be attended by a host of service providers and government agencies, including SBDDC, BSW, the Montana Independent Living Project, Aware Inc., and many more.
One of the main events on Oct. 24 will be a restaurant takeover of OMG.
“Kristi and I started thinking, we need to do more, (but) we can’t hire more people. We’re pretty much staffed,” Tom said. “So we had an idea…we thought we should take our restaurant and turn it over for the day and do a fundraiser.”
Similar to a taproom takeover, disabled workers from local service providers will help run the restaurant to show what they can do in a fast-paced environment. Meanwhile, the SBDDC Dish-Ability food truck will be parked outside, staffed by the organization’s clients. One hundred percent of OMG’s profits that day will go toward a fund to help disabled workers pay for job-related expenses — things like uniforms, safety equipment, and taxi vouchers. Part of the proceeds will also go toward a marketing campaign in October, which happens to be National Disability Employment Awareness Month, to inform business owners about the benefits of hiring disabled workers.
Lastly, the Oct. 24 event will include workshops for local businesses on tax incentives available for employing people with disabilities and a job fair for local service providers and case management companies to recruit workers for vacant positions.
According to the Cronnellys and Castiglioni, far too many disabled people who are able to work are unemployed.
In fact, the three said, Montana’s unemployment is around 3.7 percent while 80 percent of disabled people don’t work. And for those who are able to work, their unemployment rate is over 40 percent.
Cronnelly and others interviewed by The Montana Standard said disabled people face a variety of challenges when it comes to breaking into the workforce.
Carolyn Sanders, part-time BSW job specialist, has been working with disabled clients for over 43 years, and she says transportation can be a big challenge for her clients.
She noted that many disabled people aren’t able to drive and can’t afford to take taxis. They can take public transportation, but those services have limited hours, which doesn’t help employees who work for restaurant owners who need to fill evening positions when bus services are closed.
That’s why, Sanders said, part of the funds from the OMG fundraiser will go toward taxi vouchers.
Castiglioni and Sanders added that disabled people also have to contend with misconceptions among employers — including that hiring disabled workers can cause employers’ liability insurance rate to go up, which the two women said is not true.
But what employers can find if they hire a disabled employee, Castiglioni and Sanders said, is support from a job coach, who can help train the employee so it’s not left to the employer. Similarly, employers can reach out to their worker’s job coach for troubleshooting or if they feel the employee needs a refresher. There are also tax breaks the come with hiring disabled workers. Employers can learn more about these benefits at the Oct. 24 workshops.
The restaurant takeover will also feature a job fair to recruit vocational coaches, respite providers, and other support personnel for local providers and case management companies, which Cronnelly says have struggled in recent years to fill vacant positions.
Sanders and Castiglioni have filled a number of those roles throughout their careers. And while the pay won’t make anyone rich, they said that what people who enter the industry will find is a job with bountiful rewards.
“I should have been doing this kind of work all my life, because I love it,” said Castiglioni, who made a career change in 2003 when she took a job at BSW.
Ruschelle Tyvand is a 43-year-old woman with Down syndrome who has worked at McDonald’s for over 22 years. She entered the workforce with the help of job coaches from BSW, and according to Castiglioni and Sanders, she’s an example of what can be accomplished if disabled workers are given proper support.
Tyvand has done what many people with developmental disabilities aspire to: she is living independently.
A couple of years ago, Tyvand was able to buy her own condo, where today she lives on her own.
“It felt great,” Tyvand said, reflecting on the day she purchased her own home.
Today Tyvand works five days a week at the fast food chain, and she’s a much-loved employee, said Karina Gorman, the restaurant’s general manager.
“She’s an absolute joy to work with,” said Gorman. “She is very hardworking and loving.”
As for Tyvand, she said she hopes she can serve as a positive example for others.
“I just want to show them they can live on their own,” said Tyvand when asked if she had a message for other people with disabilities.
“And believe in yourself,” she said.