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New state-funded placement program provides customized services to those who are deaf

Even in the middle of the night, the FedEx Home Delivery facility in St. Paul is bustling with activity. Ryan Woodruff, shown here, works at a steady pace with his partner sorting small packages which will be delivered throughout the Twin Cities area.

“It was hard the first week or so and took a little bit of time to get used to, but my body has adjusted and now it’s fine,” said Ryan who wakes at 1 a.m. to get to work on Metro Mobility by 3:30 a.m. 

He and his co-workers make a great team. “We respect each other and help each other out,” said Ryan. “It’s nice.” Ryan works Tuesday through Saturday and his shift ends when all the packages have been sorted for loading onto delivery trucks, usually by 6 a.m., unless it’s the busy holiday season. He started work on October 27.

Ryan, who is deaf and has cerebral palsy, is an engaging young man who has ambitious goals. Intent on working independently at a business in the community, Ryan worked with Rise Occupational Communication Specialists Katrina Schiferl and Beth Spreigl to identify jobs which would be interesting and challenging.

Ryan is one of the first ten people who are deaf and have additional disabilities participating in the Sensory Quality Improvement Project (QIP) – Home and Community-Based Services Performance-Based Incentive Payment Program (HCBS PIPP), funded by the State of Minnesota.

Ahavah Cook, an occupational communication specialist with Rise’s Minnesota Employment Center for People Who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing, assisted Katrina and Beth in getting the project off to a good start. Together they identified people from Rise’s DTH (Day Training and Habilitation) Sensory Support Unit who wanted to pursue competitive employment in area businesses.

In the initial six months of the program, Katrina and Beth assisted people with developing individual Discovery Plans to identify their interests and skills, developed career plans, honed their job-seeking skills, and practiced job interviews. 

Three people were in the job placement phase and collectively applied for 84 jobs in area businesses. Those three now have competitive jobs and work an average of 22.75 hours, earning an average wage of $10.28.

“It’s exciting to assist people in achieving their dreams to obtain and maintain meaningful employment,” said Beth. “Each person we work with has a unique set of skills that shine through.”

Katrina helped Ryan with orientation and job training. Katrina and Beth, who are fluent in American Sign Language (ASL), then joined Ryan at the job site to assist with communication. They also helped his supervisor, Cassie Melcher, make some simple accommodations so he could communicate with his co-workers and make a good transition to the worksite. 

Since the others don’t know ASL, Ryan uses gestures, writes notes, and is allowed to text on his iPhone to converse with them. 

“I love working with such incredibly motivated people in finding their match for employment,” said Katrina. “Ryan was so determined and presented himself confidently in his job search. Now, it’s great to see him happily working -- it's a good fit for him, and FedEx’s work environment is wonderful.”

“Ryan is an exceptionally driven, hard-working individual who is meticulous and detail-oriented in his work,” added Beth. “The FedEx job is a good match for him.”

Ryan had previously worked with a team of Rise workers who are all deaf. “That was much easier than being on my own like I am here,” said Ryan. “But I like the challenge and being much more independent at work is very satisfying. I like being able to show people what I can do on my own.”

Cassie describes Ryan as a great addition to the team. She and his co-workers say they admire his reliability, strong work ethic, and careful attention to detail – all attributes which make him perfect for the FedEx position.

Not only are Ryan and his employer happy, but his family is also excited. They say that Ryan feels better about himself and is reaching out to others who are deaf to encourage them to pursue their own dreams. 

Ryan has found that he enjoys having the days to himself with an open schedule. He and his fiancé plan to get married in June.

Equally excited about his competitive job, Daniel Johnson, who goes by DJ, says he loves his dishwashing position at Byerly’s deli in Roseville. DJ admits it was a big transition for him to work independently in a competitive job without the daily support of staff and co-workers who are fluent in ASL, but he is thriving in his new position. His Byerly’s co-workers were quick to welcome him into their friendly work team and have established their own methods of communicating. They appreciate his good work.

Katrina and Beth help out with any issues that may come up when they stop in for their regular follow-up visits. They also assisted DJ with learning Byerly’s policies and procedures when he first started back in November.

“DJ has an engaging personality with a smile that's contagious,” said Katrina. “He's genuine in wanting to help everyone and takes great pride in his work.”

April Martin, deli manager at Byerly’s, agrees. “DJ has fit in really well in our department. He is a hard worker and very careful about his work. Even though we didn’t know much sign language when he came, we easily developed ways to communicate with him. He is fast learner and a great addition to our team. He has quickly become a member of our Byerly’s family.” 

“Even though it’s really busy here, we still have a lot of fun,” said DJ, who works 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., three days a week. “We like to tease and joke with each other. I feel independent working here. Sometimes I get to try other tasks; I really like learning new jobs.”

Working back in the award-winning deli definitely has its advantages. “We have had some great food as a thank you and during the holidays,” said DJ who said he especially likes Byerly’s Oriental chicken and rice dish.

In his free time, DJ loves playing league basketball and bowling in St. Paul. Some of his co-workers plan to cheer him on at upcoming games. “Life is good,” DJ signed with a smile.

“Both FedEx and Byerly’s have been great employment matches,” said Beth. “Their managers and employees have been amazing with making quick accommodations, having open communication, and giving positive encouragement to Ryan and DJ. Katrina and I are confident they will continue to do well.”

Photo: Ryan Woodruff is an ambitious guy who enjoys being part of the team at FedEx Home Delivery in St. Paul. He starts work at 3:30 a.m. and his shift ends when all the packages have been sorted.

This article appears in the March 2015 issue of the Rise Reporter.