Wanting to work

Sunday, July 22, 2007
Harry and Stephanie Birkhead stood in the temporary recording studio set up in a spare bedroom in their home. They plan to convert their garage into a full studio for their business, Affordable Studio Services. Both Birkheads are legally blind. (Aaron Eisenhauer)

Harry Birkhead wants to pay taxes.

Finding a regular job has been almost impossible, because he, like his wife, Stephanie, is legally blind.

The Cape Girardeau man traveled and performed music under the stage name Chris Belle, but life on the road was tough. He decided to find a way to stay in the city. The Birkheads opened a home-based recording studio last year and hope to expand it. They are lucky, he said, to have professional skills.

"A lot of blind people are living hand-to-mouth in a quagmire," he said. "We want to keep reaching higher."

Birkhead said people with disabilities are "all over the map as far as our skills and how we're socialized."

But most, he said, want the equality and dignity that comes with a paycheck and paying taxes.

According to surveys by the National Organization on Disability, most Americans with disabilities between the ages of 18 and 64 do want to work. But only 32 percent have found jobs.

For the rest, a person who can help is Darin Stageberg. He calls himself a jack of all trades, but his real job is helping people with disabilities find employment. He is a program manager and evaluator at Lakes Country Resource Center in Cape Girardeau, a division of the not-for-profit Alternative Opportunities Inc.

Stageberg, whose hearing and vision are impaired, knows only too well the hurdles job hunters with disabilities face.

Often employers don't realize that accommodating a worker could be as simple as using a phone book to elevate a computer monitor or attaching a headset to a telephone, Stageberg said.

"Often my job is to educate business owners," he said.

Melissa Veal helps place Lakes Country clients, using tests to measure intelligence, interest and abilities. She says no worker-job match, from fast-food restaurants to law offices, is perfect, but most are "darn close."

It can be tough to find the right employer, one that accepts and accommodates a worker with disabilities, she said. Some potential workers, especially those with such diseases as depression, fear discrimination.

"They need an advocate," Veal said.

Sandy Cato is often one of the first they meet. The community work incentive coordinator is based at SEMO Alliance for Disability Independence in Cape Girardeau. She helps people with disabilities sort through Social Security's rules and regulations governing Supplemental Security Income and Social Security Disability Insurance.

SSI pays $623 a month; SSDI payments are based on how much a person has earned while employed. She said people with disabilities quickly find the money is not enough to live on.

She said they often fear returning to work will disrupt their health insurance.

Cato, who serves residents in 20 counties, estimates she sees between 30 and 40 people each month.

"They have a desire or motivation to go off disability and earn on their own," she said. "There's a lot of proud people who feel they want to have an income."

In Missouri, 15 percent of the population aged 21 to 64 live with a disability, according to a 2005 U.S. Census Bureau report. That figure reflects only those living outside of institutions.

Blake Friedrich, 23, has been working since he was 18 but needed persistence to find the right job. He lives with his parents in Cape Girardeau.

"I'm considered mentally delayed," he said. "I can still work and do the stuff I need to do."

He worked as a custodian for Sears and, briefly, as a guard and cashier at Buchheit.

"I got fired," he said. But his advocates, at Buchheit and Lakes Country, helped him find a new job as a bagger and cart pusher for Schnucks in Cape Girardeau.

Dennis Marchi, Schnucks' store manager, said employing people with disabilities is a corporate commitment and worth the extra training or technology sometimes required.

Customers are understanding when they encounter workers with special needs, he said.

"In most cases, a high percentage become good, productive workers," he said. "You can count on them. They're on time, very flexible in their schedules, and they enjoy working."

Marchi said Friedrich is friendly and full of energy.

"You ask him to do something and he'll do it," Marchi said.

Friedrich said extra training "helped me out a ton. I did highly appreciate that a lot. Without that training, I don't think I would have made it past my 90-day probation."

Though currently off work to recover from minor surgery, Friedrich said he can't wait to get back to his job.

"It gives me something to do so I won't feel lazy," he said. "I like meeting people every day. It's always good to see a new face."

pmcnichol@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 127

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