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Making Champaign County more disability-inclusive

In our last issue, we did a premiere story on LEAP, Leaders in Employing All People, a free training and education resource for employers in Champaign County on hiring people with disabilities. Developmental Services Center (DSC) and Community Choices provide the training. As part of our ongoing coverage, we want to go deeper on this topic and see how employers are navigating issues around hiring people with disabilities. This issue we’re taking a look at how Champaign and Urbana park districts have collaborated with each other and with LEAP in an effort to make Champaign County more disability-inclusive.

First off, it’s important to know that our local park districts are no strangers to working with people with disabilities. The Champaign Park District already houses Champaign-Urbana Special Recreation (CUSR), an organization that was formed by a cooperative agreement through both park districts to provide programming and leisure services for residents with disabilities. What we want to highlight here is how the park districts are not only providing services, but they’re also looking into how they can hire people with disabilities as employees.

As part of this discussion, DSC staff was invited to participate in a training and tour with Champaign Park District staff last fall on disability inclusion, leading up to the CPD staff going through a LEAP training later in December. The staff training involved a morning trek through several park district locations with stations set up to simulate various challenges that people with disabilities may face on a daily basis. For example, one location asked the staff to put on oversized, button-up shirts, and then try to button the shirts, while wearing oven mitts, all while being prodded along by a leader saying things like, “Hurry up! The bus will be here soon.” A debriefing over lunch followed the training.

LEAP Coordinator and HR staff at the park district have continued to discuss how they could continue to work together following their LEAP training.

“With many positions to fill here, it’s vital that we seek out a diverse workforce,” HR Coordinator Debbie Sage says. “We’ve been looking at how we can host job fairs, tours and do things like make accommodations for applications and interviews to be an even more disability-inclusive workplace.”

Going through LEAP training was the jumping-off point for both Champaign and Urbana park districts. When asked why Urbana Park District decided to become LEAP certified, Executive Director Timothy Bartlett shared, “The Urbana Park District’s supervisory staff really benefited by learning more about what the LEAP program has to offer through LEAP training in providing community resources to help hire and train future employees. DSC and Community Choices provide multiple levels of support for our local businesses and agencies working to hire from within our area. They provide user-friendly employment services to help us meet the mission of the Urbana Park District. As a community, we all benefit from creating and promoting employment opportunities for every segment of our workforce.”

Bartlett has seen a similar response to the LEAP training among his staff. They completed the training in 2017 and have since gone on to hire people with disabilities and have looked for ways to be more inclusive in their programming. One example is the Community Palooza event at the Urbana Indoor Aquatic Center. The event is a partnership with LEAP collaborator, Community Choices and the Urbana Park District. An aquatic center employee who has a disability coordinates it and then works with other volunteers who have disabilities to run the entire event. The day’s activities are not open to just people with disabilities; it’s intended to be inclusive. The event is for everyone, and is part of an overarching campaign the Urbana Park District has called You Belong.”

The Champaign County Forest Preserve and Rantoul Parks and Recreation/The Village of Rantoul have also been recently LEAP certified.

Reflecting on her experience in working with the park districts, DSC Director of Employment Services Annette Becherer had this to share:Our park districts have really taken ownership of the LEAP training. They’re invested. What’s most important is that they are creating a safe culture for people with disabilities, which is necessary if you want to attract applicants with disabilities.”

For more information about LEAP, Contact DSC LEAP/Employment First Coordinator Stephanie Davenport at