UCP of Southern Arizona (UCPSA) helps make jobs work for people with disabilities.
The agency employment services program, WorkAbility, has placed more than 200 people with disabilities in competitive real-world jobs in Tucson since 2014 and, more recently, Yuma and Green Valley. WorkAbiliy collaborates with both employers and employees to ensure mutually beneficial job opportunities. The initiative is expanding in Green Valley with a transition to work and job coaching and development services.
“Everything we do is geared toward matching the person into the job they’re interested in,” says Vanessa Zuber, who created the program after months of research into best practices and innovative training. “We use a holistic approach with our members and assess the needs of the employers.”
WorkAbility applies an employment first philosophy, meaning the conviction that anyone can work; employment is an expected outcome for youth with disabilities, a focus on the person’s abilities and strengths; and efforts to align those abilities with the needs of a workplace for competitive integrated employment rather than subminimum wage or sheltered workshop jobs.
“It’s based on what the employee is looking for,” Zuber says. “They have to complete a resume, participate in interviews, and apply for jobs like any other job seeker. There’s a huge variety of jobs available for the untapped talent of the people we support. When we get to know what the job seekers are looking for, we find places where they want to work.”
On-site job coaches work with both employers and employees to ensure the match is mutually beneficial and the employee will have continuous support to keep the job.
Zuber, who joined UCP in 2006 as a case manager working with adults and families of children with disabilities, recognized employment was a vital factor in the long-term goal of maximum independent living, overcoming barriers, and poverty. Unemployment for people with disabilities was 6 percent in November, compared to 3.3 percent for people without disabilities; the labor force participation rate was 38.8 percent compared to 76.9 percent.
“I was moved by parents’ wanting something more for their kids as they were transitioning into adulthood,” she recalls. “I said, ‘We should have employment services at our agency and developed a program meeting the needs of transition-age youth.’”
The agency contracts with Rehabilitation Services of Arizona and the Division of Developmental Disabilities to provide employment services to people with a variety of developmental disabilities. The program served more than 100 people in 2022, including 40 people in jobs (30 new placements) and 60 involved in work readiness or job searches. It has 15 staff members in Tucson, four in Yuma, and three in Green Valley.
In addition to job coaching and development, the employment program provides work-readiness training such as self-advocacy, soft skills, career exploration, and hands-on skills training. It includes entrepreneurship, where participants create crafts and sell hand-crafted food items at the Heirloom Farmers Markets. Participants choose items, market research, develop supply lists, shop, record purchases, create, market, package, label, and sell the products in person.
The lesson teaches teamwork, problem-solving, math, customer service, and other skills for the workplace. Items made in the past include mosaic coasters, picture frames, homemade marshmallows and gourmet popcorn.
“There’s so many aspects to their learning just by participating in this project,” says Director of Transition Services Brande Kitzberger. “It’s a really wonderful experience for the members and provides the hands-on experience the job seekers need, especially since the end goal is employment for our all of our members.”
This year, participants will bring wares to the Heirloom Farmers Market at 4502 N. 1st Ave. in Tucson on March 26 and October 27. They will also sell at the Green Valley Heirloom Farmers Market.
UCPSA is an affiliate of national UCP Washington, which organized as United Cerebral Palsy in 1942 and now serves a vast range of people with disabilities, including autism, Alzheimer's, and those who are limited because of illness such as heart attack or stroke. The agency, with offices in Tucson, Yuma, and Green Valley, serves more than 1,000 people and has more than 1,000 mostly part-time employees.