Vicki Stewart is the executive director of Employment Disability Resources. She's spent her entire career helping folks with disabilities, and she sat down with Sioux Falls Simplified to chat about National Disability Employment Awareness Month. This year's theme for the month is "Advancing Access and Equity."

Answers are edited for length and clarity.

Let's start with a little bit about you. What in your background prepared you for your current role with Employment Disability Resources?

I was born with a disability – diagnosed at three weeks old, so I've pretty much used a wheelchair my whole life.

I knew that I wanted a career helping people in some way, but I did not know what that would look like. In college, I changed my major maybe four or five times, and I ended up with a religion major and a psychology minor.

  • I've basically worked in the disability field for 30-plus years. I've worked for the state, different nonprofits and I really feel like this current role has been my dream job.

I'm really passionate about promoting employment for people with disabilities because I think it's a game-changer. It gives them a sense of purpose. It gives them a chance to use their skills, and of course we all just love being out and about.

It's National Disability Employment Awareness month, and we're all about simplicity here. Can you describe what this month means to you in one sentence?

It's really about celebrating workers with disabilities, their talents and the skills they bring to the workplace.

Tell me more about Employment Disability Resources and the work you do.

It was established back in 2010 as the Business Resource Network, and we recently rebranded.

  • The board of directors has about 14 people, and they're people with disabilities. They're business owners, representatives of different industries, and they take a very active role.

Our mission is to provide businesses with with education, awareness and resources to promote the successful employment and inclusion of people with disabilities.

  • As far as education goes, we provide disability etiquette training. We do our "Windmills" training, which really focuses on some of the attitudinal barriers that exist in the workplace.
  • All of those trainings are at no cost to any size business.

We also recognize businesses that already hire people with disabilities, provide guidance on reasonable accommodations and provide resources on different job accommodations that are available, tax incentives, etc.

What’s something you think people misunderstand about people with disabilities – specifically in the workplace? And if you could correct them, what would you say?

I think a lot of times people tend to focus on what the person can’t do or their disability instead of their abilities and skills and talents that they have.

There's also a misconception that if they hire someone with a disability there is going to be additional costs, and that's just not true.

  • Most reasonable accommodations cost nothing, and those that do cost something are typically $300 or under.

The benefits a business receives from hiring a person with a disability definitely outweighs some of the misconceptions that are out there.

How do Sioux Falls businesses do when it comes to supporting people with disabilities at work?

When I started in this position there were 13 businesses that had received the disability friendliness award and now there are 250.

  • We still have some work to do, of course, but we are advancing.

We started a mentoring program that we kicked off in July, and I think the more experiences businesses have with individuals with disabilities, the more open they are to hiring them.

Tell me more about the mentorship program.

We had five youth mentees, and we visited with them about where their interests lie and what type of work they think they might want to do in the future. Then we matched them up with businesses in our community, and they spent about three hours with the business.

We also tried to place them in businesses that already employed someone with a disability.

  • I think that makes a difference as well, if they can see other people with disabilities are employed, that might give them the extra boost that they need.

What can employers do to create opportunities for people with disabilities?

Have an open mind about hiring people that maybe they haven't worked with before.

  • I know a lot of businesses are looking for employees, and I really feel this might be an untapped population that could bring a lot of good to the business.

Anything else you want the good people of Sioux Falls to know?

A lot of fears can be eliminated when people have an open mind and realize people with disabilities are just people.