Nearly 170 Jackson County students gathered inside the Blue Springs Christian Church on Wednesday, seeking full- or part-time employment from businesses taking part in the Reverse Job Fair and Disability Employment event set up by the Blue Springs Chamber of Commerce, in partnership with schools from Blue Springs, Grain Valley and Fort Osage.

It was the second year for the fair, which seeks to connect students with disabilities to jobs where they can be successful, and train employers on how to handle applicants and employees with disabilities.

The students set up tri-fold displays highlighting their skills and interests, ready to sell themselves to potential employers. Prior to the event, each one was asked about their long-term goals and where they wanted to end up in life. Students said they wanted to work with animals, to bake or be an actor, or simply said they wanted to ensure full-time employment, and be able to pay their bills as adults. Some students weren’t seeking to leave the fair with a job, satisfied with the interview experience to put to use later, but many sought employment from the different businesses represented.

Before the employers met with the students, they attended a panel in which Senior Employment Specialist Jeff Carpenter from Job One, which employs dozens of adults with developmental disabilities, on the the topic of hiring employees with disabilities.

Carpenter was joined by Lauren Sobaski of the Fisher Phillips law firm, Tracy Marconette of St. Mary’s Medical Center, Marsha Powell of H&R Block and Josh Palmer of UMB Bank.

The panel members made the point that businesses are often hiring those with disabilities without realizing it through the normal hiring process, and inclusion programs take everything a step further by making the conversation of disability more comfortable. The panel also offered some advice on hiring, giving employers specific methods to bring into the interview process, such as ensuring the use of a standard set of questions rather than tailoring questions to the individual.

Palmer advised employers to “take a breath,” when faced in an uncomfortable situation.

“If you’re asked a question you don’t know how to answer, it’s OK to say ‘I’ll have to look into that,’” he said. “The worst thing I have found manager or team member can do is a knee-jerk response that isn’t thought out.”

When an employer is faced with a potential employee asking for an accommodation for a disability, Powell said the process of providing one isn’t as daunting as it seems. She gave the example of a vision-impaired applicant who needed assistance seeing the screen when it came to taking a typing test for standard office programs. She explained she reached out to the Jobs Accommodation Network, which directed them to a company that provided software to enable the applicant to see the screen clearly. Powell said they ended up hiring the applicant and use the software in house.

“It wasn’t a lot of work, it just having a better understanding and education,” she said. “You don’t have to be afraid if someone is asking for something. Most accommodations are very easy and inexpensive.”

The employers kept this in mind when visiting from table to table, visiting with the students of each school, looking for a match for mutual success.

“When they’re successful, it creates a domino effect and it opens people’s minds,” said Powell.