Cody Smith, said that at first his internship at Imaging and Records Management Services was “super nerve wracking.”
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Smith, 31, of Salem, said.
But Smith had a close friend who also an intern and he said that helped him to stay grounded. Fairly quickly he caught on to his new job duties.
Smith was part of Project SEARCH, a nationally acclaimed unpaid nine-month internship program that provides employability training to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The project has been partnering with Oregon Department of Human Services (ODHS) Imaging and Records Management Services (IRMS) and Facilities since 2019 to enhance their inclusive work environments. IRMS prioritized recruiting people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in 2015 because of the Governor’s Executive Order that basically stated that state agencies need to do a better job of hiring people with developmental disabilities. Since then, IRMS brings in six to 12 interns per each of the two cohorts. Support and skills training are provided for the interns in a braided, collaborative approach between Garten Services, the ODHS Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) and the Office of Developmental Disabilities Services (ODDS) programs.
IRMS, (they say every letter) is a program of ODHS that receives, opens, scans mail and other records so they can be available to people and groups that need them. The program often gets more than 100,000 of pages of documents and mail a day.
The intern program has been so successful that recently IRMS was awarded “The Public Employer of the Year” award from the Oregon Resource Association (ORA) “for making an impact in the lives of people with disabilities by giving them a place they are able to build confidence and learning skills.” ORA is the professional membership association for community providers of services to individuals with disabilities.
The IRMS program started with the interns just opening mail. The work duties have expanded to three rotating tasks: one group opens and sorts mail and scans documents; one group in Facilities helps in the storage warehouse and does item tracking and one group does data entry. Garten Services, Inc., a non-profit that partners with ODHS’ Office of Developmental Disability Services, serving people with disabilities, provides classroom time to assist the interns in things like transportation options, job interviewing practice and social skills in the work setting. Many interns had not held jobs before or had worked in sheltered workshops. Due to a federal ruling in Lane v. Brown all Oregon Office of Developmental Disabilities Services funded sheltered workshops closed September 2020.
Smith had come from a sheltered workshop where he was part of the custodial team. He prepared the supplies for the custodians.
“It was a very background kind of job. I wanted to do more,” Smith said.
He heard about the IRMS program through Garten Services and word of mouth and started as an intern in September 2019. Smith did such a great job he was hired three months later as an Office Specialist scanning mail and processing other documents He started out mostly working on old Fairview Training Center documents. Fairview was a state-run facility for people with physical and developmental disabilities. It was closed in 2000 following a federal civil rights lawsuit. He now focuses mainly on medical claims.
“I thought I was doing just average. I guess I was doing better than I thought. It just shows I underestimate myself. This work is definitely more up my alley than my job before. Here I take a bit of pride in what I do. I am doing things that matter. It helps people and it matters,” Smith said.
There is about a 65 percent employment rate for graduates of Project SEARCH, which means that two-thirds of the interns end up getting a job afterward. This is considered a fairly high rate of job offers. Garten Services and the ODHS Vocational Rehabilitation Program assist job placement.
Having these great interns also benefits the IRMS program.
When IRMS Manager Jeff Akin first started in 2016, he immediately saw the worth in providing supported employment for people with disabilities.
“I could see the value in this crew of people. They enjoyed their jobs, did well and wanted to do more,” Akin said.
A few years later it was found that the ODHS Child Welfare program was getting a plethora of public records requests and needed more hands to find, scan, catalogue and deliver the requested documents. It was a heavy lift. Many records from years ago are in paper form, stored in boxes in archival warehouses in Salem.
IRMS created small teams, partnering with VR to find qualified candidates, that go into Child Welfare offices and scan records.
“They’re solving real problems; Child Welfare workers now have more immediate access to records. It makes it easier to have consistent records management; and we’re providing opportunities for people who may not have worked before or were not working at their potential,” Akin said.
Through the years Akin said that one of his ‘Big AHA!’ moments was when day when a woman, he had assumed that part of their disability was that they were non-verbal, came into his office.
“She said she wanted to do more. She had been doing the same things for a while. So, we worked on her interview skills and she promoted into a position at the ODHS Background Check Unit doing fitness determinations for providers of care. And now she’s getting her master’s degree in clinical social work. It was Big AHA! for me, People want to have dignity. They want to be a part of something,” he said.
The IRMS program also changed how they recruit and interview people with disabilities.
“We moved away from the traditional question and answer format. We bring people in for a meet and greet with staff and managers. If they have basic skills, we can teach you the other skills. We focus on ability.”
The program also has a positive approach for accommodation requests.
“We start with a yes attitude. Yes, we’ll get that accommodation for you. We’ll figure it out,” Akin said.
What would Akin say to other people and programs who might be considering being part of Project SEARCH or hiring people with intellectual and developmental disabilities?
“Every person brings tremendous value to your work culture. We are better in every imaginable way because we have created an equitable and inclusive environment. We are more productive our turnover is much lower, our culture is great. None of this is hard. Resources are available to help you. There’s nothing special in what we have done – we are just treating people like people.”
And what does Cody Smith say to others with disabilities who might be considering such a program?
“Take the risk, the work experience alone is well worth it,” Smith said.