Southern Illinois Businesses Honored for Employing People with Disabilities

State and private employers work together to mentor people with disabilities to help them go to work and earn more.

The Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS) is recognizing numerous companies in October for their commitment to hiring people with disabilities. The Walgreens Distribution Center in Mt. Vernon and the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Marion are being honored for their willingness to hire, retain, and promote significant numbers of persons with disabilities in quality jobs.

The honors were announced Wednesday, October 17 by Robert Kilbury, director of the IDHS Division of Rehabilitation Services (DRS) in a ceremony at the One Stop Center in Mt. Vernon.

"We appreciate the commitment of Illinois employers in hiring people with disabilities," said DRS Director Kilbury. "I encourage other Illinois companies to follow the example of these businesses and join us in building a stronger workforce."

Walgreens, the nation's leading drugstore chain, has made a commitment to employ at least 1,000 people with disabilities in its 12 distribution centers across the country. The goal was announced during a grand opening event this summer at the Anderson, SC distribution center where 42 percent of the workforce has a physical or cognitive disability such as autism or mental retardation.

Future Walgreens DCs, including one opening in Windsor, Conn. in 2009, will launch similar disability initiatives.

"We are honored to be able to offer people who are often overlooked the opportunity to develop skills to engage in productive work," said Walgreens Mt. Vernon DC manager Christopher Johnson. "This is not about us patting ourselves on the back. My job is to make sure this facility runs like a well-oiled machine. We do this by focusing on what people can do instead of telling them what they can't."

Walgreens stresses that this is not a charitable initiative. Employees with disabilities will be held to the same performance standards as all other employees and will earn the same pay and benefits for the same work.

The champion of this initiative, Walgreens senior vice president of distribution and logistics Randy Lewis says his 18-year-old son, Austin, who has autism, has taught him to look past the obvious to see what's special about the individual.

In the past four years, 27,619 Illinoisans with disabilities entered into competitive employment, according to statistics from the IDHS Division of Rehabilitation Services (DRS). In Fiscal Year 2007 the DRS vocational rehabilitation program helped 5,230 people with disabilities become employed statewide, an increase of 5 percent over the FY2006 figure.

For the fifth year, October is being highlighted as Disabilities Awareness Month. While there are many activities happening during October, few have as great an impact as Disability Mentoring Day. Disability Mentoring Day, on October 17, offers employers the opportunity to open their doors to workers who face barriers to employment. This day is mutually beneficial for employers and job seekers, in that employers can see first hand the value and diversity that workers with disabilities bring to the work place. Job seekers with disabilities have the opportunity to see first hand a variety of employment settings which can assist them in career exploration and job search.

The most important part of a job search is the ability to network with people in the work force. Helping job seekers with disabilities develop employment networks can help level the playing field during their job search. This year the agency is working to increase the number of job seekers with disabilities who are involved in mentoring situations.

It is expected that more than 500 workers will have the opportunity to observe real life work situations and learn how to enter a variety of fields. The employers who offer these opportunities are leaders in their communities who know that America works best when all Americans work! The diversity provided by workers with disabilities strengthens employers and empowers workers.

"We're working hard to close the employment gap that separates workers with disabilities and those who do not have disability related barriers to employment," said IDHS Secretary Carol L. Adams, Ph.D. "Undoubtedly, the positive relationships our DRS staff have cultivated with many employers throughout Illinois have played a critical role our success. Employers are finding that people with disabilities are skilled, productive, and conscientious workers."

The average wage earned by Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) program customers who entered employment in FY2007 was $9.41 an hour, continuing a steady increase from the figure of $8.36 per hour in FY2003.

Equally important, the percentage of people with disabilities who receive employer-provided health insurance increased from 27 percent in 2003 to 30 percent in 2006.

As Illinois' lead agency serving individuals with disabilities, DRS helps people with disabilities prepare for and find quality employment that pays a living wage and offers opportunities for advancement. DRS works closely with employers through its Corporate Business Partner initiative to match them with qualified individuals with the skills and qualities they need. As a division of DHS, DRS also offers a wide range of support services to assist eligible individuals with disabilities in obtaining and maintaining employment.

For more information about hiring persons with disabilities and other services provided by DHS/DRS, call 1-800/843-6154 (Voice) or 1-800/447-6404 (TTY).

October recognition events are being organized by many of the department's field offices.

  • October 16 Moline
  • October 17 Mt. Vernon
  • October 17 Marion
  • October 25 Peoria
  • October 26 Springfield