By KATHLEEN NELSON
The best part of Alex Seacrease's day as a patient transport specialist at Mercy Hospital St. Louis comes when he strikes up a conversation with the people he's wheeling to tests, X-rays, surgery or the front door for discharge.
Alex Seacrease transports a patient at Mercy Hospital St. Louis. He was hired through Mercy's partnership with the Special School District of St. Louis County.
"I love the interaction and being able to help them move around," Seacrease said. Seems an obvious perk to the job, until you learn that Seacrease has Asperger's Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder characterized by difficulties with social interaction and nonverbal communication.
"I like the challenge," he said.
Seacrease is one of four people hired last year through Pathway to Employment, Mercy's partnership with the Special School District of St. Louis County that trains high school-age students for jobs at Mercy or elsewhere.
Pathway to Employment is just one piece of Mercy's Healthcare Workforce Inclusion Model, which will be expanded thanks to a $400,000 grant from the Kessler Foundation. Based in East Hanover, N.J., the Kessler Foundation funds rehabilitation research and innovative programs that expand employment opportunities for people with disabilities.
Going to scale
"What was attractive to us was that they had done a small, successful initiative, and the opportunity to scale up through their system was very exciting," said Elaine Katz, the Kessler Foundation's senior vice president of grants and communications. "They are also part of the larger Catholic health system that can use Mercy's experiences as a blueprint."
Over the next two years, Mercy will use the Kessler grant and private donations to increase inclusion initiatives in St. Louis, to spread the model to six of its hospitals in Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma, and to develop best practices that other hospital systems can use to set up or improve their own programs.
Inclusion efforts like the one at Mercy aim to reverse statistics reported by the U.S. Census Bureau:
- People without disabilities were about three times more likely to be employed than individuals with disabilities.
- 52 percent of workers with disabilities earned less than $25,000 per year, compared with 38 percent of workers with no disabilities.
- People with disabilities get paid 25 percent less than people without disabilities for performing the same work.
"Shifting the culture is our ultimate goal," said Dana Brodeur, Mercy's manager of disability inclusion services. "If you don't shift the culture, then inclusion is difficult."
Mercy has developed multiple approaches to inclusion at its hospital in St. Louis that it will expand to the six other hospitals. Among them are the following:
Education: Mercy's goal is to offer disability inclusion training to 26,000 employees in the next two years. Recruiters and hiring managers will receive additional training in interviewing people with a disability and avoiding stereotyping and unconscious bias. Mercy St. Louis has held self-advocacy training sessions for people with disabilities that it will offer at the other hospitals. The sessions include information on Americans with Disabilities Act resources and partnerships with community-based providers.
Employment: Mercy's goal is to hire 60 people with disabilities in the seven hospitals over the next two years. In addition to filling current positions, Brodeur said the model will emphasize career paths that offer lighter duties or flexible scheduling. Among the possibilities are convenience services, such as delivering meals to employees or staffing hospitality carts.
Mercy also plans to serve as an employment resource for the community through its clinics.
"I get calls pretty regularly from coworkers who have a family member with a disability, and they do not know how to access employment services," Brodeur said. "Since everybody goes to the doctor, we want to get our information about disability employment services in the offices of doctors who treat people with disabilities."
Training, development and support: Pathway to Employment is one of the job training strategies in place at Mercy hospitals in St. Louis, Jefferson County and Washington, Mo., that will be expanded. Before graduating from high school, about a half dozen students a year from the Special School District of St. Louis County spend a year at Mercy, learning both job and soft skills. Upon graduation, students then go through the traditional interview process before earning a full-time job. Six students have been hired at Mercy in two years. Other graduates of the program have been hired elsewhere.
"The teachers I worked with did interview practice and helped me with answers," Seacrease said. "I felt like I was ready for the interview."
Mercy also will refine its job coach model and expand Job Club, in which employees with disabilities at the hospital in St. Louis meet in groups weekly to focus on developing soft skills.
The hospitals also will implement additional opportunities for volunteers with disabilities to become employees. A dozen volunteers with developmental disabilities have become salaried employees at Mercy St. Louis; 33 others have been hired elsewhere in the community.
"We want to find ways to help people develop their skills, especially if they need longer learning curves," Brodeur said.
A model program
To implement the programs, Brodeur and two inclusion coordinators will serve as liaisons with task forces in each of the seven hospitals. Mercy also will work with Rutgers University to evaluate each of the elements of the model and formulate best practices that other health systems can implement.
"The work we have to do is massive, and we have two years to do it," Brodeur said. "We want to have it packaged so we can duplicate it outside the Mercy walls for health care systems in the rest of the nation."
With a set of best practices in hand, Brodeur believes that hiring people with disabilities becomes easier. She noted that if people with disabilities are placed in the right job, "they are the most dedicated employees. They are long-term employees. They've had to overcome challenges faced with having a disability. They've learned how to fit in. Give them an opportunity and a little time, and you've got incredible employees. So, it makes good business sense."
In return, she said, people with disabilities bring a perspective that can enrich the ministry.
"I did face some challenges, but I did get an understanding about the workforce and learned to communicate pretty well," Seacrease said. "I honestly don't know where I'd be without it."
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