If you are an unemployed person with a disability (PWD) who is looking for a job, the statistics are depressing. The U.S. Dept. of Labor reports that 72.7% of persons with handicaps are unemployed and that most who do have jobs tend to be working in low-paying occupations.

The Progress Center for Independent Living, however, is preparing to launch a program to improve those numbers. 

The first paragraph of a letter to PWDs dated Oct. 2, reads: 

Dear Consumer [the term the Progress Center uses to refer to the people they serve],

As you may already know, this is the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. As part of the year-long celebration, Progress Center for Independent Living is about to embark on something new and exciting. Working with members from the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce, our staff, and board, we are creating a database where local businesses can view and choose from a talent pool of consumers, interns, and volunteers, to offer a possible internship opportunity in the community. …

Sara Capetillo 

Bilingual Employment Advocate 

The first column in the data base will have a reference number instead of the applicants’ names. The following columns will contain interests and skill sets, degrees and accolades, and a space for accommodation requests. 

Capetillo said that when the data base contains 25 consumers — hopefully by Jan. 1, 2016 — it will be distributed to business owners in the community.

The Community Partners Committee, which she chairs, came up with the slogan, “Let us in. It’s a sure win.” The “let us in” part describes the goal of the program, i.e. to advocate for people with disabilities who are seeking work in Forest Park and the surrounding communities. The “it’s a sure win” part expresses what, in Capetillo’s view, is a “can’t lose” opportunity for business owners.

She said the “sure win” for business people is that they are not expected to hire persons with disabilities only on the basis of a resume and/or interview. Consumers in the program will receive four weeks of training at the Progress Center before beginning an eight-week, on-the-job internship at no cost to the merchant or factory owner. The interns will be paid a minimum wage, funded by a federal grant administered through the state of Illinois.

In terms of a cost/benefit analysis, the cost to the business owner is time spent training and mentoring the intern. The benefit is eight weeks of free labor and the satisfaction of having contributed to the acquisition of job skills and dignity of a person with a disability. All of this, added Capetillo, is without any obligation on the part of the owner to hire the intern at the end of the eight weeks. All the merchant or manager promises to do is to give constructive feedback to the interns if they are not hired.

Capetillo went on to explain that, for the intern, it’s a “no lose” proposition as well. 

“If they get hired at the end of the internship, great,” she said. “But even if they don’t land the job, they’ve gained valuable experience and another line they can add to their resume.”

John Conversa, director of Manufacturing for Ferrara Candy Company, and Joel Foster, a financial advisor with Edward Jones on Madison Street, are members of the PCIL Community Partners Committee and have been involved in the planning of the program from its inception. Conversa’s team at Ferrara designed a logo for the project.