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Local News

Finding work with a disability

Advocates say attitudes are changing

JOLIET – Claire Radtke hopes to one day live independently. 

The Joliet resident, who has a developmental disability, doesn’t want to have to depend on her family for everything. Last year, Radtke, 38, was able to come one step closer to that goal by getting a job cleaning kitchens at Joliet Junior College with help from Cornerstone Services Inc. 

Working in the kitchen and being around friendly co-workers is something Radtke enjoys. 

“It builds up my self-esteem and I enjoy talking to other people that I come in contact with,” she said.

The positive change in her life, as well as in others with developmental disabilities who work, is why Illinois advocates support the rights of people with cognitive or developmental disabilities to find employment. Advocates say there are misconceptions about the skills of people with developmental disabilities and it is important to correct those.

A national employment services and outcome report from the Institute for Community Inclusion shows the number of people with cognitive disabilities in Illinois was 286,732 in 2012, and 64,628 of those people were employed. In 2008, 75,406 people with cognitive disabilities were employed.

The economic recession in 2009 is largely to blame for the decrease in employment, said Jennifer Kowalkowski, director of employment services for Cornerstone Services.

Many companies had hiring freezes and tried to do more with fewer workers, Kowalski said.

“There were so many people out of work that they could get more people with more skills into those jobs than people with cognitive disabilities,” she said.

Recently, Kowalkowski has seen improvement in job opportunities for people with developmental disabilities. Among many programs offered by Cornerstone Services Inc., one is that it helps people with disabilities find work. About 143 people secured jobs from the agency this year, and about the same number did last year. In 2009 and 2010, the agency found jobs for between 80 and 90 people each year.

People with an intellectual or developmental disability are not able to compete as well as others in the job market, said Tony Paulauski, executive director of Frankfort-based Arc of Illinois, an advocacy organization for people with disabilities.

But a law signed last year by Gov. Pat Quinn that makes employment for people with developmental disabilities a priority has been an important step in making sure they are able to find work, he said. The law requires all state agencies to work together to make competitive employment for people possible and establish measurable goals for the state. 

“Our identities are so closely tied to the work that we do, and that’s no different for people with disabilities,” he said. 

Anthony Cornoyer, 22, of Shorewood, was driven to get a job he wanted, said Katherine Coke, his career counselor at Cornerstone Services. Cornoyer, who has a developmental disability, was able to find work as a dietary aide at the Joliet Terrace nursing center. 

“I just don’t like to be sitting in a house all day,” he said. 

Coke said finding a job for someone with a developmental disability depends on their attitude and if the job is suitable for their skills. As a career counselor, she helps clients like Cornoyer assess their skills and prepare for jobs. 

“The biggest benefit is if the clients get the job because they really want to be there,” she said.

It’s a benefit for employers, too. People with disabilities who work a job can find friendship, connection and sense of purpose. Companies in turn are able to get workers who can be reliable and a beneficial asset to them, Paulauski said. 

Paulauski said he sees a change in stereotypes about people with developmental disabilities, as does Margaret Harkness, program specialist with the Illinois Council on Developmental Disabilities. She said the change is coming from a more inclusive educational system. 

Harkness recalls one young woman with Down syndrome who was initially told she was unemployable. But with much support from her family and a job coach, she was able to work at a child care center and she’s now preparing to live on her own. 

“For someone who was initially at home and, ‘Oh, she’ll never work,’ she’s got a completely full life now,” Harkness said. 


Number of people with a cognitive disability in Illinois employed:

• 2008: 75,406
• 2009: 68,986
• 2010: 59,228
• 2011: 70,098
• 2012: 64,628

• Percentage of people with no disability who were employed in 2012:
72 percent

• Percentage of people with a cognitive disability who were employed in 2012:
22.5 percent

Source: 2013 Institute for Community Inclusion State Data National Report on Employment Services and Outcomes

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