Connecting disabled with the right job

Young partners leap into a business breach where none has gone before

Posted: Monday, September 08, 2003

When Bill Kozlowski began receiving disability benefits in 1996, he, like many disabled people, wanted to work.

"I'm too young to be disabled disabled," Kozlowski, now 31, remembers thinking.

Because he suffers from a severe form of hemophilia that can cause spontaneous internal bleeding, Kozlowski can't do some of the physical work that would be easy for most people his age. Joint problems resulting from years of internal bleeding mean he can't stand for long periods of time.

But he can work on a computer, read, write, edit videos and design computer programs.

What Kozlowski needed, he said, was a way for him to explain himself - his disability as well as his capabilities - to potential employers.

Using the computer knowledge he acquired by attending school with the help of the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, Kozlowski developed the Digital Job Coach - a multimedia CD-ROM that introduces disabled individuals to employers.

Bret Connell, a friend of Kozlowski's from Washington, quit his job at Intel and moved to Juneau to help Kozlowski develop his product. With two other partners - Noah Walden in Washington and Mike Taus in California - Juneau Information Services Technology was created in October 2002.

The business consists of eight computers and video equipment in the garage of Kozlowski's house. But the group has big plans for the company, Connell said.

The Washington Initiative for Supported Employment, which advocates for the employment of people with developmental disabilities, flew Connell and Kozlowski to its conference in June to present the Digital Job Coach. The response was positive, they said.

"We expected somebody to say 'We're doing this already,' " Kozlowski said.

"But the response was just the opposite," Connell added. "We walked out of that conference thinking 'Oh my god, we've got a good idea.' "

The company has produced about eight Digital Job Coaches since the prototype, which used Kozlowski as the subject, was finished in November.

The company's clients are from REACH, a nonprofit organization that provides support services for people with disabilities; the Hope Community Resources, a similar program in Anchorage; the state Division of Vocational Rehabilitation; and some independent clients in Washington.

People with disabilities can be very valuable employees, as long as the employer is aware of the disabled person's skills, said Makenna Rielly, services director at REACH.

"So often people don't know what the disability is about," Rielly said. "So they put a label on there and they think this person's not going to be doing any work and they're doing it for charity. ... We want to move away from that."

Allowing an employer to learn about a potential employee in a comprehensive, easy-to-understand format will allow both the employer and employee feel more confident about the match.

Employers "can go into their own office, in the privacy of their own office, view this CD and say, in their own comfort level, 'Yeah, I could work with this person,' " Rielly said.

Or the employer can choose not to hire the person and feel comfortable about the decision, she added.

When she first saw the Digital Job Coach, Rielly appreciated the format for the Juneau Works program at REACH. But she wished the program could be adapted to introduce disabled clients to service providers, she said.

Juneau Information Services Technology obliged and presented Rielly with a CD called Rise to Rest earlier this year.

The first Rise to Rest CD-ROM was "outstanding," Rielly said. "It had not only the critical information, but it also personalized the client as a real human being."

Programs like Rise to Rest and the Digital Job Coach will help agencies lower the number of "bad matches" in employment and with service providers, Kozlowski said. Juneau Information Services Technology is in the process of applying for patents for the programs.

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