Kristin Winter sold her sparkling, delicately beaded jewelry at the ELSA Transition Fair at Elmhurst College on Feb. 22. But she began to sparkle herself when she started talking about the ELSA Class of 2010—her graduating class.
“I loved it,” she said. “I felt like I was included somewhere; I felt like I belonged somewhere.”
The Elmhurst Learning and Success Academy, or ELSA, is a four-year program that offers a full-time, post-secondary educational experience to young adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities. ELSA students carry a traditional college schedule, can participate in college activities and organizations, and have the option of living on campus.
About 75 people attended the fourth annual Transition Fair, where they could learn about “multiple college programs, and a variety of other services and programs that serve our community, all in one place,” said Tim Ahlberg, assistant director of admission. “It also serves as a great opportunity to see the campus and ELSA students in action.”
Winter said she took some finance classes as an ELSA student, learning the essentials she needed to start her own business, Jewelry By Kristin, after a couple years of struggling to find employment.
People with disabilities can have trouble finding work in a typical workplace because employers often unconsciously put up barriers, said the Transition Fair’s keynote speaker, Randy Lewis, a former Walgreen Co. senior vice president who pioneered a program to employ people with disabilities.
Walgreens worked with community groups to have them teach potential employees how to do certain kinds of jobs. The potential employees then were hired after demonstrating that they could do the work, rather than having to go through a traditional interview process. Over four years, the company came to employ 1,000 people with disabilities in its distribution centers.
Those distribution centers have less absenteeism and fewer accidents than other centers, and are the most productive, Lewis said. But perhaps the greatest impact has been on the company’s managers, who are learning to ensure that everyone in the workplace is successful.“Everything we do to improve things for people with disabilities makes it better for all employees,” Lewis said. “This is an idea whose time has come.”