The most underutilized resource

Project SEARCH teams hospital with disabled employees

Without a doubt, Southwest Washington Medical Center is home to some cutting-edge technology.

But for the past year, the Vancouver hospital has been employing what one advocate calls the most underutilized resources in the country – people with disabilities.

On Oct. 12, in the midst of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, Clark County recognized the hospital as the employer of the year in the private sector for its efforts.

In July of 2005, SWMC began employing people with disabilities in process-related, skilled positions through Project SEARCH, a replication of a Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center program of the same name.

SWMC was the first hospital on the West Coast to adopt the program, and is serving as a potential model for hospitals throughout the state. On Oct. 13, representatives from Spokane, Port Angeles, Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia, Kitsap County and Yakima will have converged at SWMC to learn more about its experience and open the set up the lines of communication.

"It really is making a difference in (the employees’) lives," said Donna Domila Dominick, SWMC employment specialist. "It’s great to know we’re making a difference in the community, and there are jobs to be had."

Good for business

Project SEARCH is a partnership between a business, funding source and employment agency that caters to people with disabilities, and is of very little cost to the business.

In the long run, it may save money.

Clark County funds SWMC’s program by providing the hospital with an in-house job coach, Amy Pedersen, though Vancouver-based Tangible Systems, a program that assists people with disabilities in finding jobs. The county also pays Paula Johnson, vice president of Seattle-based O’Neill and Assoc., to assist with the recruitment, screening and interviewing process for the hospital. O’Neill and Assoc. is a training and technical assistance firm that works with employers, agencies and school districts to support and expand employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

Domila Dominick said the key component of the success of Project SEARCH is this single-point-of-entry system – the hospital only deals with the county, rather than individual agencies.

"They’re providing the support services that make this program successful," she said of Pedersen and Johnson. "They really understand our jobs, so they find the right fit for the specific job and that’s why it works. We know we’re getting the best person for the position, and (department) managers like that."

The hospital provides office space for Pedersen and salaries for the four employees, but as Domila Dominick pointed out, the Project SEARCH positions are not special jobs. Hospital departments craft job descriptions based on their needs.

The jobs are complex and may be routine in nature. One Project SEARCH employee works in the Diagnostic Imaging Department sanitizing beds, stretchers and wheel chairs, delivering finished X-rays to various departments, maintaining oxygen tanks and stocking changing rooms.

These jobs are necessary positions, and would otherwise take time away from another hospital employee. This helps to fiscally streamline the departments.

"We don’t need a registered dietician stocking shelves for two hours a day if there is someone else qualified who wants to be doing the work," Domila Dominick said.

And if the job is a good fit for the employee, a department will find that turnover rates and absenteeism will fall, Pedersen said.

Since the program began, not one Project SEARCH employee has resigned, Johnson said.

"It’s automatic status to work at a hospital," Pedersen said. "Project SEARCH employees have a feeling of value their first day. It’s a source of great pride for them, and there’s so much loyalty."

Employing people with disabilities is a plus on Equal Employment Opportunities Commission reports, and by doing so, the hospital better reflects the makeup of Clark County.

And perhaps most importantly, the hospital is making a contribution to the community, Johnson added.

"You’re creating opportunities for people who are not traditionally employed in hospitals," she said.

Breaking down stereotypes

"People with disabilities are the most underused resource we have, period," Pedersen said.

Project SEARCH employees must have high school diplomas or the equivalent, but other than that, restrictions are few. They may be any age – SWMC’s employees range from mid-20s to late 40s – and have any developmental disability.

They go through the same interview process as any other hospital employee to ensure the departments find the highest quality employee.

When a position is available, the job description is distributed to disabilities services agencies. The applicants are screened, and the top three to five candidates are interviewed.

A measure of its success, department heads are beginning to contact Domila Dominick with needs that could be filled by Project SEARCH employees.

"But we are very careful not to stereotype what a Project SEARCH job is," she said. "They are real jobs that make a difference, and sometimes they’re very complex. Sometimes you think a person with disabilities couldn’t do that. Turns out they can."

The model could be used in other industries in Vancouver, Johnson said.

Along with its hospital, the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital program staffs a bank.

"We know the model will work in other environments," Johnson said.

Clerical and manufacturing jobs at large companies may be a good fit, she said. Locally, nine people with disabilities work with the city of Vancouver, six with Clark County
and five in different state offices.

But as of yet, no businesses in Vancouver have expressed an interest in Project SEARCH. However, some local businesses employ people with disabilities.

Johnson said she is in the stage of getting to the right people to potentially coordinate programs, but said that HP and Nautilus would be ideal.

Since the program began, Domila Dominick said there has been a change in staff morale.

"We’ve shown that we have an awareness of diversity and we promote it," she said. "We actually stand behind what we say we are as an organization."

County recognizes top disabilities employers

As part of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, representatives of Clark County acknowledged several people and organizations who have contributed to the effort of putting people with disabilities to work.

The fifth annual awards ceremony, "Americans with Disabilities: Ready for the Global Workforce," was to have been held Oct. 12 at the Hilton Vancouver Hotel.

The county’s Department of Community Services, Developmental Disabilities Advisory Board and Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce chose Southwest Washington Medical Center as the employer of the year in the private sector for its Project SEARCH involvement.

When the program that places people with disabilities in "complex jobs with a routine nature" kicked off in the summer of 2005, the hospital made the commitment it would employ 10 people with disabilities by March of 2007.

It currently employs four in the environmental services, central processing, diagnostic imaging and emergency departments. Two more jobs are in the process of being created.

The hospital was the first hospital on the West Coast to take charge of the program, and it may soon serve as a model for other hospitals around the state.

In the public sector, the city of Vancouver’s Development Review Services Department was selected.

The department hired its first supported employee in May of 1999 and currently employs a clerical assistant who has developmental disabilities.

Anne Timberman was named the county’s employee of the year. Timberman has worked for 14 years at First Aid Only, a Vancouver-based business that specializes in first aid kits and supplies.

Oregonian reporter Bryan Denson was honored with a special media award for his coverage of employment for people with disabilities. One article featured a Vancouver man employed at Lowe’s and what his employment meant to him.

This year, the county created a special service award that was named after its first recipient, Dennis Campbell, who received it this year.

Campbell is a long-time advocate for people with disabilities, who has served as the president of the Vancouver chapter of People First of America, a self-advocacy group run by people with disabilities. He remains an advisor to the chapter, and sits on the Clark County Developmental Disability Board.

He also has served on four state committees proposing new legislation that impacts people with disabilities.

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