HARRISONBURG — The nationwide unemployment rate is 3.3%, forcing employers to look wider and harder for employees to fill in jobs, said Debby Hopkins, workforce officer for the Shenandoah Valley Workforce Development Board.
Workers with disabilities, for instance, are seeing a historically low unemployment rate of 6.3% for the second month in a row.
“This is the best opportunity of the last two decades for individuals with disabilities to really prove that they can be, and are really, integral to a company's workforce,” she said.
A variety of institutions, including the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center, in Fishersville, Pleasant View Inc. and local company initiatives aim to include workers with disabilities.
And companies have been “thrilled,” by the results, Hopkins said.
“Companies have a great incentive to look into other populations that they've never previously considered,” Hopkins said.
And companies often don’t understand just how widely the term “disability” can apply, she said.
“It doesn’t always mean someone in a wheelchair,” Hopkins said.
Some become workers with disabilities due to circumstance, such as Donald Miller, 56, of Timberville.
On Aug. 24, 2003, Miller was hit on his motorcycle in New Market. After being in the hospital for two months, he knew he wouldn’t be able to go back to his work as a cabinet builder for Merillat, in Mount Jackson.
“I knew immediately I couldn't go back to work,” he said, as he was on his feet for eight to 10 hours a day operating a machine to cut the profile of cabinets.
Miller started job hunting, working at Dairy Queen, in Harrisonburg and A.W. Whitmore and Sons grocery store, in Broadway.
“I went from making kitchen cabinets to making biscuits,” he said.
Now, Miller works at James Madison University's E-Hall dining facility, mostly doing food preparatory work such as dicing vegetables.
“Now I have a job where I can set my own pace,” he said. “If they give me a job, and I know how to do it, I can do it.”
Some injuries are dire enough to bar someone from returning to the traditional workforce, such as John Norment, 37, of Harrisonburg.
Norment, who worked with at-risk youth for a decade, was in his first year as a third-grade teacher at Keister Elementary when, in 2016, he contracted a virus that caused serious heart failure.
“One of the complications of heart failure is that when my heart weakened, several clots formed, and I had a series of strokes,” Norment said. “One of which was severe enough that it obliterated a majority of the right hemisphere of my brain.”
After learning to walk and speak again, he knew he would be unable to continue to teach.
“I knew I wanted to get back to working with kids again, but there was no way I could teach,” he said.
He took a part time job in the youth services department at Massanutten Regional Library, stocking books and helping patrons.
But he had complications with seizures and could not return to work.
Now, Norment spends his time writing, including a memoir about his experience, and spending time with his family, often going on bike rides with them over the summer.
“Most people wouldn’t notice I have a brain injury in a 20-minute conversation,” he said.
Both Miller and Norment have received support from Brain Injury Connections of the Shenandoah Valley, a Harrisonburg nonprofit which connects those with brain injuries to community resources.
“We serve as a conduit to those who have sustained a brain injury to the community,” said Tamara Wagester, the executive director of BICSV.
The nonprofit serves the counties of Augusta, Bath, Highland, Page, Rockbridge, Rockingham and Shenandoah, along with the cities of Buena Vista, Harrisonburg, Lexington, Staunton and Waynesboro.
“Anything in the community we can bring to our individuals — we work in collaborative nature to do that,” Wagester said.
The nonprofit helps with residential housing, jobs and coordinating medical appointments for clients, she said, and has served about 100 over people this past year.
When finding jobs, it is important for those with disabilities to find work that suits their abilities, Hopkins said.
And nonprofits often serve to support the workers, such as job coaches, while the companies provide accommodations. These accommodations are often inexpensive, Hopkins said.
“Right now, people with disabilities are an extremely important part of [the workforce] because of the value they bring to companies,” she said.
Companies “are looking at them to do the job like everyone else, with minor accommodations and maybe some supportive services,” Hopkins said.