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October 9, 2008    DOL Home > ODEP > New Freedom Initiative   

On October 27, 2005, Secretary Chao presented the New Freedom Initiative Award to seven recipients that have demonstrated exemplary and innovative efforts in furthering the employment and workplace environment for people with disabilities, a goal of President Bush’s New Freedom Initiative.

The recipients included three non-profit organizations, three businesses and one individual.

Non-Profit Organizations

Breaking New Ground
Resource Center and Outreach Program
Purdue University
West Lafayette, Indiana

Since 1979, the Breaking New Ground Resource Center and Outreach Program (Breaking New Ground), located within Purdue University's Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, has worked with farmers, ranchers, agricultural workers and their families to facilitate employment following disabling injuries or diseases. This multifaceted program provides a wide range of services and conducts ongoing research and outreach activities focused on increasing access to appropriate assistive technologies, peer support, self-employment business training and technical assistance.

In 1990, Breaking New Ground, which provides direct, on-site services to farmers throughout Indiana, became the primary model for the establishment of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) AgrAbility Program that now supports projects in 28 states to provide rehabilitation services to farm and ranch families impacted by disabilities. During the first 11 years of the AgrAbility Program, Breaking New Ground provided national leadership for the initiative during a time when it grew from 8 states to nearly 20. A primary contribution was providing training for state project staff members and the development of supportive resource materials.

Breaking New Ground is recognized as one of the leading sources of evidence-based technical information for enhancing employment opportunities for agricultural workers. Research has demonstrated that, with appropriate training, encouragement and assistive technology, it is more viable than ever before for a person with a disability, even a severe disability, to return to work in agricultural production. By enhancing the accessibility of employment opportunities in rural America, Breaking New Ground fosters strong support networks that enable individuals to remain in the communities and do the work for which they are best trained and enjoy.

Over the past 25 years, the program has worked directly with, or provided services and resources to, an estimated 30,000 farmers, ranchers, and agricultural workers seeking to remain productively engaged in some aspect of agriculture. Over the past 15 years, these efforts have included over 1,200 on-site technical consultations in more than 20 states, responses to over 17,500 calls on the Breaking New Ground toll-free helpline, the development of over 50 technical and educational resources related to disability and agriculture, and the distribution of approximately one million pieces of literature throughout the United States and Canada.

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Center of Vocational Alternatives
Columbus, Ohio

The Center of Vocational Alternatives (COVA) is a community non-profit vocational rehabilitation and employment organization serving persons with psychiatric disabilities and employers seeking to provide them equal, open access to employment opportunities. COVA provides a spectrum of employment services to people with psychiatric disabilities, including readiness programming, computer resources, benefits consulting, job development, job coaching and long-term follow-up. Its focus is on making employment a cornerstone of a richer, more fulfilling life experience for persons with mental illness.

In 1982, COVA began as a small subsidiary vocational rehabilitation service placing clients with severe psychiatric disabilities into custodial positions. It is now a 55-employee non-profit organization with job placements ranging from customer service and office support positions to skilled professional employment, such as grant writing and accounting. Job development and retention services include job try-outs, supported employment and follow-along services for clients placed in permanent positions. For skills training and job search assistance, COVA's Resource Center offers drop-in clients the use of 14 computers, internet access, a book and video library, phone, voice mail and copier services. Professionally led support groups and access to benefits consultation are also included in COVA's comprehensive approach to serving its clients.

As a resource for employers, COVA provides training on best practices in managing employees with psychiatric disabilities, as well as worksite consulting and intervention when necessary. COVA holds a quarterly employer seminar and provides speakers at a variety of provider organizations, job fairs and other employer events.

In 2004, COVA served 2,477 clients facing mental health challenges, placed 465 clients in the workplace and provided follow-along counseling support for 118 clients employed through COVA assistance. Through 2004, COVA's retention rate was greater than 94 percent on job placements for an 18-month time period. These job placements, in partnership with 192 Central Ohio employers, provided wages ranging from $7.44 to $9.19 per hour. COVA has an annual budget of $3.9 million and service responsibilities for a significant portion of Ohio. Approximately 88 percent of its annual spending directly targets the hiring and retention of persons with psychiatric disabilities in the workplace.

By providing a conduit to the workplace and a place in mainstream society, COVA has enriched the workforce. Employers discover that persons with mental illness can become valuable additions to the corporate team. Clients find the emotional and financial satisfaction inherent in a job well done.

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Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

InspiriTec is a not-for-profit organization that serves people with disabilities by helping them find and retain jobs in the Information Technology (IT) field. InspiriTec blends its Information Technology and Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) skills and experience to establish and operate IT-related non-profit business ventures in such areas as call centers, software development, LAN administration, and assistive technologies. Over the past five years this social entrepreneurship approach has allowed InspiriTec to enable the employment of people with disabilities, primarily through its call center operations. The company has also advanced the IT skills of unemployed or underemployed persons with disabilities through vocational training, counseling and assistive technology services, providing them a path for career advancement.

InspiriTec's staff consists of seven consultants and over 90 employees, more than 75 percent of whom are people with disabilities who work together to provide IT services within the competitive marketplace. Clients include Fortune 500 companies, large and small non-profits and government entities. InspiriTec manages three call centers that handle more than 5,000 customer contacts per day during peak periods. In addition, the organization ships an average of 125 pieces of fulfillment literature per day. The call centers are the Pennsylvania Bureau of State Parks Reservation Center, the Public Utility Commission, and the Welfare to Work Employer Verification Center, each of which has unique business requirements that InspiriTec's staff successfully meet.

InspiriTec is committed to maintaining 75 percent of its direct labor staff as people with disabilities. To achieve this mark, InspiriTec manages an extensive outreach and recruiting campaign within the VR community, including participating as an Employment Network provider under the Social Security Administration's Ticket-to-Work program. An additional 20 percent of InspiriTec's employees come through Welfare-to-Work training programs. Employees receive customized training each year and are part of a Quality Assurance program that helps InspiriTec maintain its high level of customer satisfaction and keeps the employees' skills current.

Since its inception in March 2000, InspiriTec has generated 309 new jobs and held IT training sessions for 793 persons with disabilities. The organization provides a supportive environment for staff, health care and retirement benefits, and routinely assists its employees with transportation, legal and health matters, and childcare arrangements.

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Computer Sciences Corporation
Federal Sector
Falls Church, VA

Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC), a leading global information technology (IT) services company, provides innovative solutions for customers around the world by applying cutting-edge technologies and CSC's own advanced capabilities. These services include systems design and integration; IT and business process outsourcing; applications software development; Web and application hosting; and management consulting.

CSC continues to provide an environment that supports employees with disabilities by recognizing and leveraging their abilities. In recognizing these abilities, CSC employees continue to advance business goals and support long term success. This talented global workforce includes over 800 disabled employees worldwide.

Abilities, Inc, National Center for Disability Services, an international nonprofit, vocational rehabilitation organization, recognized CSC for "ongoing commitment and support to the employment of people with disabilities." CSC also participates as an active member of the National Business & Diversity Council and sponsors various local, national and global activities that advance employment of persons with disabilities. One of those programs, the "Partnership for Freedom" in CSC's Federal Sector, was designed to enhance the employment of people with disabilities in competitive positions including information technology, finance, accounting, business development, communications and human resources.

To ensure the success of the Partnership for Freedom program, CSC Federal Sector manages and assesses the program. Through regular communication and training programs, employees learn about CSC's commitment to hiring persons with disabilities. Training includes disability issues in interviewing, hiring, effective communications and inclusion of people with disabilities in the workplace. CSC communicates and requires all employees to commit to working together in a manner that is inclusive, mutually respectful and tolerant. These efforts with other CSC sponsored programs have increased the employment of persons with disabilities this past year by 81 employees across CSC.

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Merck & Co., Inc.
Whitehouse Station, New Jersey

As one of the world's leading research-driven health care companies, Merck & Co., Inc. discovers, develops, manufactures and markets a broad range of novel medicines to enhance human and animal health. The company is committed to hiring and developing talented people and providing them with an environment in which they can achieve their full potential.

Over the years, Merck & Co., Inc. has been active in incorporating the thoughts and ideas of people with different abilities into the way the company does business, and has a long track record of recruiting employees with disabilities, providing workplace accommodations, and conducting disability awareness activities. In 2003 these activities and offerings in the area of disability were reviewed, aligned and articulated under a single focused and multi-faceted strategy called disABILITY Accommodation and Outreach, with its title focusing attention on the unique contributions and abilities that people with disabilities bring to company's workforce.

The central objective of the Merck & Co., Inc. disABILITY Accommodation and Outreach Initiative is to develop an infrastructure with a clear, consistent and standardized approach to supporting the company's employees with disabilities in the United States, with future expansion to employees globally as circumstances allow. In pursuit of this goal, the company formed the disABILITY Advisory Council. The purpose of this cross-functional employee team is to remove barriers to employment and productivity and to provide direction on issues relevant to employees with disabilities. Based on the work and recommendations of the Council, the company's achievements in the area of disability have been numerous.

Among these achievements are training and awareness events, including Merck & Co., Inc.'s 2004 National Disability Employment Awareness Month activities, as well as the Line Manager Accommodation Training Module that has been made available online to managers. External partnerships and internship programs have also played an important role, with the company participating in numerous recruiting events and conferences, and partnering with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to host four AAAS Entry Point interns during the summer of 2005. Merck & Co., Inc.'s Web Accessibility Initiative has resulted in its Web site being awarded certification from the National Federation of the Blind, signifying that the Web site is as accessible to people who are blind as it is to those who are not.

Other accomplishments include the disABILITY Accommodation Web Site & Training, which offers a roadmap for those involved in the disability accommodation process. A number of workplace accommodations, including facility modification and flexible work arrangements, have been made for Merck & Co., Inc. employees. Further, the company introduced closed captioning for Webcasts and meetings for its employees. Finally, a virtual community called disABILITY Dialogue was launched to connect via e-mail employees with and without disabilities in an exchange of productive dialogue about disability-related issues. The e-mail box is monitored by a member of the disABILITY Council who uses the combined expertise of the Council members to respond to the mail received.

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Rockville, Virginia

TecAccess is an Information Technology (IT) accessibility consulting business. TecAccess helps government agencies and corporate entities comply with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which requires the development, procurement, maintenance and use of technology that is accessible to persons with varying degrees of disabilities. Founded in 2001 by a former IT professional, TecAccess assists companies in making IT software, products and Web sites accessible to everyone. The business, which started with four employees with cognitive and physical disabilities, has increased its sales by 83 percent and now has 52 employees, 46 of whom have one or more disabilities. TecAccess's mission is to make the world more accessible to persons with disabilities while employing people with disabilities to lead the way.

With a focus on building accessible Web sites and technology, TecAccess provides its customers a wide range of ADA and Section 508 compliance and accessibility tools including training, testing, assessment, remediation, marketing, policy review and engineering. The company's clientele is 80 percent corporate and 20 percent government. TecAccess encourages companies to integrate accessible design practices into their corporate design, development and maintenance processes so they can deploy fully accessible technology solutions over the long term.

TecAccess understands that millions of people with disabilities want and need access to online technologies, equal employment and advancements in the workforce, and that the best person to test assistive technology is a person who uses it. By hiring staff who deal with technology barriers everyday, TecAccess can provide its clients meaningful, reliable test assessment from the people for whom the access was designed. A smaller control group of testers without disabilities also works for the company.

The 46 TecAccess accessibility experts with developmental, physical, sensory and emotional disabilities telecommute from around the world and are paid equal to or above the industry standard. Some hold post-graduate degrees with extensive computer training, but many do not and have been trained by TecAccess in electronic and information technology. Many employees have become partners in the business, owning shares and a vested interest in the future of the company. All have opportunity for training and vocational advancement.

TecAccess has a commitment to open closed corporate doors, and to enable people with disabilities to achieve as productive and independent a lifestyle as possible. Company president, Deborah Ruh, has traveled worldwide to provide training to universities, supported employment programs, vocational rehabilitation facilities, and corporate entities on how best to implement fair standards in the workplace and open corporate doors in a fair and equal manner to employees with disabilities.

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Jim Westall
Port Townsend, Washington

In 1988 Jim Westall began the Skookum Corporation as a small non-profit business in the economically strapped rural region of Port Townsend, Washington. A special education teacher at the local high school, Mr. Westall realized that graduates with intellectual challenges had no place to work, so he started a company in his garage. Ten workers with intellectual disabilities made jump ropes, the company's only product. Today, Skookum Corporation has over 500 employees, 75 percent of whom have disabilities, performing a variety of jobs for several different employers.

When the demand for Skookum Corporation's first product, jump ropes, was insufficient to support the business, Mr. Westall sought advice from local business owners and retirees. They inspired the idea of training high school graduates with disabilities in janitorial services and bidding on local contracts. In 1994, Skookum won its first NISH/JWOD contract with a local Navy base to provide grounds maintenance services. The organization also took over operation of the local county recycling facility, providing an additional 15 jobs for persons with severe disabilities.

In 1996 another JWOD/NISH contract with the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard provided jobs for 180 employees who managed janitorial services. In 2002 a JWOD contract with the Army brought another 300-plus jobs providing basic vehicle maintenance services. Skookum was growing from a small non-profit venture into a major county employer, but kept its commitment to providing excellent job opportunities for persons with disabilities and superior services to contractors. Twice the company has won the Governor's Award for the leading non-profit organization in Washington State.

Under the leadership of Jim Westall, Skookum is dedicated to providing a range of job opportunities and support services. It has provided facilities for a host of non-profit service programs, job clubs, worker support groups, assistive technology projects, literacy training and apprenticeship training. Skookum played a major role in the regional Projects With Industry by providing the onsite services of a vocational rehabilitation counselor, and has worked with the Olympic Workforce Development Council to assure the best possible linkage to the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation and the State Employment Service.

Today, the Skookum Corporation manages several large JWOD/NISH contracts, operates the Jefferson County Recycling Center, maintains its Jump Rope Division, and provides community living support services, vocational support services, employment training, a work motivation program for low income women and a host of other services and opportunities. The company, and its founder Jim Westall, have established a reputation of service and accessibility, and have had a profound impact on the community. Local newspapers have praised the success of the Board of Directors and Chairman Westall, who guided a small company into the county's largest employer in less than 15 years. The most measurable impact has been in the number of job opportunities provided to persons with disabilities.

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