Rick's Body Shop in Rapid City offers an example of the attitude South Dakota officials and business executives are trying to establish in hiring people who are disabled.

When he took a job two years ago in a California auto-body shop, Aaron Ready, an accomplished collision repairman despite his visual and hearing impairments, was hoping he would be assigned meaningful work.

Instead, he was told to sit in a corner and do less-than-challenging tasks.

He said last week he "kind of thought" it was a form of discrimination.

Disappointed, he returned to Rapid City and called his former employer, Rick’s Body Shop, whose co-owner, Troy Murner, had earlier trained and later hired him as a part-time employee.

“We had hired Aaron before, and we had seen that he worked harder than anyone else," said Butch Murner, also a co-owner of Rick’s Body Shop. "Despite his disability, he has done some of the most difficult collision-repair work with perfect ease. His skills blew us away, so we hired him again because he deserves it.”

Like Rick’s Body Shop, many South Dakota businesses in recent years are adopting more inclusive hiring practices.

In 2013, Gov. Dennis Daugaard created the Employment Works Task Force to help employers connect with qualified workers. Daugaard has said he is pleased with the state's record on people with disabilities, but he recently wrote: "Even though our unemployment rate for those with disabilities is much lower than other states', it's still too high. There are too many South Dakotans with disabilities who want a job but can't find one."

According to statistics compiled by Cornell University, in 2013, South Dakota had the fourth highest disabled-employment rate in the nation, trailing only North Dakota, Wyoming and Alaska.

Last month, the South Dakota Department of Human Services and the South Dakota Retailers Association teamed up to try to get closer to Daugaard's goal. On Aug. 11, the two organizations had a webinar designed to help employers find and hire people with disabilities.

Shawn Lyons, executive director of the Retailers Association, said the webinar was "just fantastic," with between 40 and 50 businesses participating, and even more taking part with the link to the webinar on the association's website.

Lyons said he is convinced that more South Dakota employers than ever are hiring people with disabilities.

Another wrinkle: The DHS has launched its Ability For Hire campaign, which will include a media campaign whose goal, a press release said, is to promote the benefits of hiring those with handicaps and change erroneous perceptions of their value to a business.

The release mentioned that employers in the state are having difficulties filling positions, and people with disabilities are "an untapped workforce waiting."

There are tax incentives available to companies that hire people with disabilities. The Ability For Hire website recommends companies that are interested call Kimberly Hoberg, business specialist, at kimberly.hoberg@state.sd.us; or 605-626-2398; or toll free 800-439-3417; or fax 605-626-3089.

Catherine Greseth, executive director of the Workforce Diversity Network of the Black Hills, an organization that works closely with the DHS’ Division of Rehabilitation Services to link employers to prospective employees with disabilities, said many such people have marketable talents as well as the willingness to work.

Once some common incorrect perceptions are removed, she said, employers are ready to hire them.

“Most employers have no experience of working with people with disabilities, or sometimes they have already worked with disabled people, but they do not know because the disability was not physically overt,” Greseth said. “Once the employers start understanding that people with disabilities can be equally productive employees, they are ready for hiring and do not show any disinclination.”

Greseth said she has hired people with disabilities.

"We have sat together for several hours to discuss some of the problems that they might face and also discussed the possible accommodations that can be made for them," she said. "In my experience, when employees with physical impairment came to ask for a job, they were afraid of being rejected. But when I openly communicated with them about their problems, they felt more confident about themselves.”

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Cheryl Bartlett, president of Harvest Winds LLC, which supplies linens and towels, said that employers should focus on employees’ abilities rather than their disabilities.

When job applicants with disabilities come to her company, she engages them in detailed discussions, asking about the problems that they might face and the probability of making accommodations. Thus, open communication eliminates the common misunderstandings between both the parties.

Similarly, Betty Bowers, owner-manager at Midas Auto Service in Rapid City, said employers should be certain to look inside each person and develop a relationship in which the person speaks candidly about goals, expectations, understandings and feelings.

She said she has had good results in hiring disabled people.

Bowers said that some employers appear not to feel confident in working with and around those with disabilities. She added that Daugaard’s initiative, along with education and awareness in South Dakota, has eliminated many preconceived notions about disabilities.

And not all the reasons for low numbers of disabled people in the workforce are the fault of employers.

In the past, Bowers said, some people with disabilities were reluctant to apply for jobs because they feared that they might not be able to perform up to the mark.

That wasn't the case with Aaron Ready. When he returned to Rick's Body Shop, he was as confident in his abilities as the Murners were in him.

"I don't think we could have hired anyone any better," Butch Murner said.

The Associated Press and Jim Stasiowski of the Journal contributed to this story.

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