Executive director Janet Bruckshen at Washington Vocational Services in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Executive director Janet Bruckshen at Washington Vocational Services in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

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She convinces companies to hire ‘amazing’ disabled people

Janet Bruckshen and others at Washington Vocational Services match workers with employers in need.

EVERETT — Janet Bruckshen always has a new elevator pitch ready.

Sometimes it’s to woo a business owner. Other times it’s intended to challenge the beliefs of new staff members at the nonprofit she leads.

Bruckshen is executive director of Washington Vocational Services, which pairs job-seekers with physical or intellectual disabilities with employers in the Puget Sound area.

It’s a position she’s held for six years. Previously, she spent 30 years at Work Opportunities in Lynnwood, which provides similar services.

“These are the only two jobs I’ve had,” Bruckshen joked.

Washington Vocational Services (WVS) was founded in 1976 by parents who were concerned that their children weren’t getting the help they needed to find jobs.

WVS is headquartered in Everett but has offices in King, Skagit, San Juan and Whatcom counties.

Last year it served 940 clients with disabilities and placed 136 in jobs. It also provides job support to clients who are already working.

For years, disabled workers toiled in so-called sheltered workshops — supervised workplaces removed from the larger business community, Bruckshen said.

There workers often earned less than minimum wage in dead-end jobs.

In the early 2000s, Washington and other states began moving away from the workshop model.

Now the goal is to place disabled workers in competitive wage jobs with local companies, Bruckshen said.

But matching a disabled job candidate with an employer isn’t simple.

It requires creativity and the chutzpah to knock on doors, Bruckshen said.

Sometimes merely pointing out a pile of shoes can start the ball rolling.

“I was out shopping at a Burlington Coat Factory and there was a woman complaining to the manager that there were shoes all over the floor,” Bruckshen said.

“And he was like, ‘I know, I know,’” she recalled.

“I told him afterwards that he could pay someone to work two hours a day, straightening up. I wrote up a proposal and they hired someone.”

Is the secretary you pay $25 dollars an hour stuffing envelopes?

Bruckshen has a job candidate in mind who’s comfortable with that kind of repetition.

“How about you pay one of our job candidates so the secretary can spend their time doing more productive things?” she said.

Putting it in financial terms is an attention-getter, she said.

WVS routinely carves out custom and part-time employment options for clients who don’t have the physical stamina to work full time.

“There’s not a lot of employers that hire for eight hours a week, but if we go in and write a cost-benefit proposal, we can often change their minds,” Bruckshen said.

WVS, which is partly funded by state and county sources, also supports clients who are already employed and offers programs for 18-to-21-year-olds who are transitioning from school to work.

A graduate of Mariner High School in Everett, Bruckshen intended to become a teacher.

But when she needed money for college, she took a job helping disabled people improve their jobs skills at Stevens Hospital, now Swedish Medical Center Edmonds.

It was familiar territory.

“My mother was employed by a disabled person,” Bruckshen said. “She would go to a movie theater, see spilled popcorn on the floor and then corner the manager to say she had someone who could clean.”

A job can transform someone’s life.

“We see individuals who’ve lived at home with their families their whole lives.” Bruckshen said. “Not even family members would have guessed their potential.”

Confidence, a paycheck, an apartment, money to buy lunch or pay for the movies — “that’s a big deal for so many of our clients,” she said.

A low jobless rate has helped boost employment among disabled people. Still, last year’s unemployment rate for disabled workers — 8% — was twice the national rate, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Daniel Haistings, who is is deaf, was hired last year by Valence Surface Technologies, an Everett aerospace firm.

The company has hired 10 deaf workers in the past two years, Bruckshen said.

“They started out with a couple people and it grew and grew. A lot of these people have been turned down by so many employers,” Bruckshen said.

Haistings, who is in his 50s, can attest to that struggle — he’s faced a lifelong challenge finding work.

Companies aren’t always willing to pay an interpreter to serve as a “bridge between deaf and hearing people,” Haistings said in an email.

Employer misconceptions about what deaf workers can and cannot do can block them from moving up the ladder, Haistings said.

The deaf community is comprised of intelligent, capable people who want jobs, he said.

“There are many amazing deaf people. You do not know until you give them a chance. I DO believe deaf people CAN work,” Haistings wrote.

Bruckshen’s elevator pitch has also been honed to challenge the beliefs of new WVS workers.

“We have a thing we call philosophy training for our new employment consultants,” Bruckshen said. “I might throw out a question like, ‘Tell me what jobs you think a blind worker can’t do?’”

Can’t be a cashier.

“Not true. We have blind people working as cashiers,” said Bruckshen.

Can’t be a hairdresser.

“No, we’ve placed individuals as hairdressers,” she said.

Can’t be a mechanic.

“We’ve got mechanics,” she said, “not just changing oil, but doing repairs.”

Janice Podsada; jpodsada@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3097; Twitter: JanicePods

More information

To learn more about Washington Vocational Services go to wvs.org.

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