Christopher Thomas has been out of work for more than three years.
On Friday, the Colorado Springs resident could be found meandering around the Celebrate Independence Job Fair,handing out his resume. The neat document tells prospective employers that Thomas worked as a Safeway clerk in high school and started a car restoration business not long after graduating. It also shows a gap between his automotive work and his work as custodian at Rocky Mountain Health Care.
The gap in his resume is the reason for his current unemployment: A car accident 13 years ago left him mentally and physically impaired. Though he learned to walk again, the traumatic brain injury he sustained permanently affected his gait and his short-term memory. His Social Security Disability Insurance restricts the amount of time he can work each week - a stipulation Thomas said limits the number of employers willing to hire him.
"I want to work because I want to lead a more fulfilling life," he said.
Thomas attended the job fair at the Freedom Financial Services Expo Center to meet with representatives from nearly 40 companies looking to hire, all of which can make accommodations for people with certain disabilities. Organized by the Independence Center, a service provider for the disabled community in an eight-county area that includes El Paso County, the fair was part of a two-day event that showcased companies and organizations that help disabled individuals achieve independence.
"We think one of the main ways to become independent is to have a job, and disabled people are often regarded as unable to work," said Patricia Yeager, CEO of the Independence Center. "We're all about how you can participate and contribute given your disability."
The businesses represented at the fair ranged from Waffle House to Colorado Springs Utilities. Many employers, including FirstBank and Ace Hardware, accepted resumes from interested fairgoers. Lance Stillwaugh, logistics manager at Ace Hardware in Colorado Springs, was looking for people who could work in a warehouse and transport materials. He estimated he received about 30 resumes and applications within two hours of opening his booth.
"As long as they can do the job physically, we will consider them," he said.
Several barriers exist for disabled individuals seeking employment. The two forms of federal benefits available for the disabled limit the number of hours or the amount of money they can make in order to qualify. The complex requirements can make it difficult for employers to integrate disabled individuals into their businesses, said Bill Morris, CEO of Blue Star Recyclers, a Springs-based social enterprise that employs people with disabilities.
"As (disabled people) go out and seek employment, they have to tell their employer they want part-time work, which should not put them over that limit," he said. "What's really sad is they do lose everything if they go over."
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 19 percent of people with disabilities participate in the workforce, compared with nearly 70 percent of Americans without disabilities. In the Springs, the number of disabled people employed is difficult to estimate, because employees aren't required to report their disabilities to employers, said Andrew Winders, a rehabilitation counselor with the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation.
But if attendance is any indication, interest in jobs and services for the disabled is strong in Colorado Springs. Within two hours of opening, the Celebrate Independence event attracted about 500 people, said Cathy Strode, marketing director for the Independence Center.
"I think we're on the cusp of a transformation in how we work with people with disabilities," Yeager said. "We are much more a part of the community than we ever were before."