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Finding Employment For Disabled Workers In Spokane

Charly Walters

The job market is not easy to navigate if you’re a person with a physical or mental disability. Sometimes applicants can use a little help to learn about how to search for a job and to understand what employers expect.

Spokane Mayor David Condon recently announced the city is beginning a new supported employment program for job candidates with disabilities. 

“It’s important to expand our city’s workforce in ways that will allow us to be more representative of our community," Condon said at a news conference announcing the program. "We want to provide opportunities for meaningful work for citizens throughout our community of all abilities. This program supports a major goal of the joint mayor-city council strategic plan, to build a 21st century workforce at the city government that is more responsive and adaptive and reflects our community makeup and values.”

One of the city’s success stories is Jason Tremblay. He’s a seasonal worker at Riverfront Park.

“I’m a gondola attendant. I take tickets from people,” Tremblay said.

He helps them into gondola cars.

“And then I give a little speech to them. Then I give a thumbs-up to the controller and off they go,” he said.

Tremblay’s a gregarious guy. He likes what he does.

“I give great customer service. This is my best asset. Customer service, tell them hello and thank you for coming,” he said.

To help Tremblay prepare for interviews, he has a job coach — Troy Marshall from Ability Employment Services — who offers advice, such as what to expect from and to how to act in an interview.

Their work has paid off. Not only does Tremblay work part-time at Riverfront Park, he also has a part-time gig with Crowd Management Services, which assigns him to take tickets at events, such as Washington State football and Gonzaga basketball games.

Marshall serves as a middle man. Not only does he work with clients like Jason Tremblay, he also counsels businesses to help them understand the benefits of hiring employees with disabilities.

“Each client is different and unique," Marshall said. "What we try and focus on is what their abilities are and what their attributes are and what they bring to the table and that’s what we try and profile with the employer. Hopefully that falls within the job description and the demand of that employer. And then we support that process, from the actual application process to the actual interview to getting hired, the orientation process and then training on the job.”

There’s another player in this story. She’s Charly Walters, the program manager for a statewide organization known as Wise. Her job is also to connect businesses with disabled job applicants. Whereas Troy Marshall works directly with clients, Walters is more at the macro level. In Spokane, she works on a project called HireAbility Spokane.

“We like to set up events and raise awareness. We’re doing a social media campaign to get the word out that there are a lot of qualified job seekers who are unemployed and looking for work and ready to start today,” Walters said.

The city of Spokane sponsored one of Walters’ events. Troy Marshall was also invited.

“So we were able to have three of our clients attend that. All of them were hired to work through Parks and Recreation and all three of our clients were assigned at Riverfront Park," Marshall said. "Jason started doing the carousel and then went to concessions. Then he worked with maintenance and now, traditionally speaking, when they transfer from summer to winter, their focus is the skating palace and the sky ride.”

Charly Walters has other business partners. They include Jim Marlow, the floor supervisor at Spokane Gymnastics. A year or so ago, she brought him a group of candidates to interview for a janitorial position. Marlow narrowed the field to two.

“And then what we did was a followup interview, which is what we called a working interview. This was one-on-one. And I could go around with each individual and I’d have a rag and a spray bottle in my hand and they’d have a rag and a spray bottle in their hand," he said. "Essentially, we’d just go around and clean the gym together. I could ask more in-depth questions of the candidate while they weren’t feeling the pressure of being behind, sitting across a desk behind a clipboard and all of this.”

Ultimately, he chose Jessica Hansen.

Credit Doug Nadvornick/SPR
Jessica Hansen does janitorial and customer service work for Spokane Gymnastics in Spokane Valley.

“I love the job. The kids here are amazing. The people are amazing. It’s just awesome,” Hansen said.

And the feeling is mutual.

“She’s absolutely imperative to what we do. Keeping this place clean, in our minds, is the same as keeping it safe. All the little hands that come through and all the bare feet, that there’s germs and such that can spread around in a gym if they’re committed to having someone who can withstand that test and clean day in and day out,” Marlow said.

For now, Hansen’s job is janitorial, with some customer service included. In some places that might be her ceiling. I asked Marlow if there’s a chance for her to advance.

“That is a good question. She could do things like supervise. We have an indoor playground and there’s an opportunity there if no one else was here and we needed someone to go and watch and make sure the kids were safe that she could go in and make sure they weren’t doing anything rambunctious," he said. "But when it comes to coaching, that’s another layer of education that needs to be there and it’s another layer of commitment from an employee, that I want to go through that process, understand safety and gymnastics and do that. If she decided she wanted to, absolutely, yeah, she could do that.”

So Jessica Hansen and Jason Tremblay are now gainfully employed. And both have become role models for disabled people who would like to work but can’t find jobs. Troy Marshall and Charly Walters says their stories are inspiring, but they also still relatively rare.

“Just the celebrity that Jason has experienced here in the last two weeks in being on the news, we were contacted by a couple of other employers that said, ‘We want Jason. We want clients like that, so would you be able to meet with us, so it’s been able to knock down some of those walls that we have to go out and manually do ourselves," Marshall said.

"Now the employers are coming to us and saying, ‘How do we be a part?” he said.

“It’s been wonderful, but we are definitely not where we need to be. There are still a lot of people with developmental disabilities who are living in poverty,” Walters said.

You can find more information about Wise here