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In all but the most severe situations, a new group pushing diversity in the workplace wants people to know that a worker with a disability is capable of holding down a job and performing it as well as anyone else.  

For John Fenske, human resources director at the Lowe's Home Improvement store in Rapid City, that has held true over his more than 20 years in the human resources field, including the past seven years at Lowe's.

"In all my years, I've never had a bad experience employing someone who was disabled," he said.

A perfect example lies in Thore Jenshus, a mechanical engineer at Legends Suspension who started his career in early 2009. His life was forever altered when he slammed his head into a tree stump in a dirt bike accident. Despite wearing a helmet and full riding gear, the impact broke Jenshus' C-5 Vertebrae, rendering him a quadriplegic. 

He has no use of his legs or hands, and limited use of his arms. He uses a motorized wheelchair to get around, but those limitations haven't made him incapable of being successful at work, he said.

"I'm not as quick at typing and I can't do physical labor, but I can research and design," Jenshus said. "My boss has seen my value even though I can't do everything I once could."

But concerns exist that many employers deny otherwise qualified applicants a job because of a disability. Some believe it is because they are uncomfortable being around disabled people, because of fears of the associated costs of accommodating the needs of a disabled person, or just an antiquated belief disabled people can't perform complex tasks.

That's where the Workforce Diversity Network of the Black Hills comes in. The network, a nonprofit started in June, is a group of businesses and individuals who work in human services. They came together about two years ago to help link employers to individuals with a disability, and generally promote the hiring of people with disabilities.

"Just because a person has a disability does not mean that person lacks ability," said Margie Helgeson, district supervisor of rehabilitation services at the South Dakota Department of Human Resources and board member of the Diversity Network.

The goals of the organization are to promote the benefits of hiring a person with a disability and dispel any negative myths about hiring a disabled person, Helgeson said. 

For example, some employers might believe that it will cost lot of money to accommodate a disabled employee, she said. In reality, typically more than half of accommodations made cost nothing, while other accommodations typically cost about $500, according to a study by the Job Accommodation Network Survey.

For Jenshus, his employers at Legends Suspension installed an automatic door so he could get into the building.

Life isn't exactly easy for Jenshus. He has to use two sticks attached to his wrists for typing on a computer and has to use his smartphone with a Bluetooth attachment. He has to wake up at 4:30 a.m. so he can make it to work by 8 a.m.

But he feels lucky that he has a great support system around him, since not everyone with a disability, whether mental or physical, gets the same treatment.

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"I have no doubt people are denied opportunities for their disabilities," Jenshus said. "Sometimes it's just easier for an employer to avoid dealing with (people with disabilities.) It isn't fair but it is how it is." 

Fenske, a diversity network board member, remembers his own challenges trying to find a job when he was temporarily disabled in a snowmobile accident that broke and twisted his leg when he was 14. 

Fenske was in a wheelchair for a year before he could walk again and had a limp for several years afterward. He said his limp caused people to look at him differently and it made it very difficult for him to find a job at the time. 

"I understand the struggle that it takes to overcome a disability," he said.

In Fenske's experience, people he's hired who have a disability tend to be more punctual and have a lower turnover rate.

"Once an individual has a job, they tend to take a lot of pride in it," Fenske said. "Also, it's difficult for some people to get employment, so when they find a job, they work hard to keep it." 

On Oct. 30, the WDNBH will host a luncheon at the Rushmore Plaza Holiday Inn hotel at 11:30 a.m. to show area businesses some of the benefits of hiring people with a disability, such as federal tax incentives and the upsides of diversification of the workforce. The luncheon costs $15 and is being held in celebration of National Disability Employment Awareness Month.

State Sen. Alan Solano, R-Rapid City, will be the keynote speaker at the event. For more information or to register call 605-394-2261. 

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Contact Scott Feldman at 394-8337 or scott.feldman@rapidcityjournal.com

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