By Amanda Brandon, NRWA Newsletter Editor
I met with Ellen Sokolowski in August via Zoom to discuss her role in helping people with disabilities gain access to resume writing help, interview coaching, and job search strategies. We had a lovely conversation, and I learned that I want to be more like Ellen when I grow up. Her mission is evident, and her passion for people is unmistakable.
Ellen is a counselor with the Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services and serves a wide range of mostly rural individuals who need a boost in their job search. She equips them with job search support, including resume writing, LinkedIn profiles, and interview coaching.
One of the impressive parts of Ellen’s work is that she works with people who have a range of disabilities – learning, physical, behavioral, and neurodiversity. She and her colleagues help individuals with disabilities obtain and retain employment. They also connect job seekers with companies and agencies that provide paid and unpaid training opportunities.
“It’s gratifying that I work with people who may be at the lowest point of their lives, and I get to see growth and development to the point where they are working and being productive,” Ellen says.
Ellen’s clients run the gamut from high school students to older candidates who need assistance gaining accommodations to either seek employment or maintain a current role. She and her colleagues can assist persons with disabilities in becoming comfortable in explaining their accommodations to an employer; educating employers on reasonable accommodations that may be available and accessibility in the workplace.
Another area of focus for Ellen is working with disabled students transitioning from high school into the professional world.
“We work with many high schools to help students develop their pre-employment transition skills,” Ellen says. “This includes work-based learning, work readiness, career evaluation, and assisting in the college entry process (applications, major selection, and disability accommodations).”
Ellen and her colleagues equip students with a plan for employment that outlines how they will get from high school to their next professional goal, whether it’s a two-year degree, a four-year degree, professional training, or an apprenticeship.
“We can assist with things like tuition, tool and equipment costs, and traditional career services (resumes, interview preparation, etc.),” Ellen says. “A recent addition is helping candidates prepare for video interviews and video resumes.”
In a major effort, Iowa Rehabilitation Services is working with companies to establish apprenticeships for clients, extending beyond the traditional trades such as plumbing and electrical. “We’re seeing apprenticeships in dental hygiene, medical assistance, hospitality, and more,” Ellen says.
I asked Ellen if there was a need to identify disabilities on a resume in case the applicant needed accommodations. She says it’s not best practice to identify a disability on a resume, but more important to showcase quantifiable skills and value to an employer.
“We would not put any reference or recommend that a reference to a disability appear on the resume. “Ellen says. “The best practice would be to assist the person with a disability to address this in an interview setting.”
Covering gaps in a resume is another way Ellen and her colleagues equip candidates. She says that a skills-based resume is often the best remedy for this. “We can show that the candidate acquired them versus sharing a chronological work history,” she says.
For interview preparation, Ellen suggests that candidates keep accommodations part of the conversation. She says they work with candidates to identify if they can do the essential functions in the job description. If they need an accommodation, she recommends they discuss how the employer can help them meet that need.
“It may be beneficial for the candidate to educate the prospective employer about the need through conversation,” she says. “They may find a different way of performing a task that works for them, but the task is still completed.
“For example, if a candidate is in a meeting that requires notetaking, they can use a device like the Echo Smartpen to record the notes and get a transcript instead of laboring to get the notes on paper.”
Ellen and her team can equip employers to handle these accommodations through the onboarding and orientation process so that it becomes part of the role.
I learned that many common standards in the workplace often started as disability accommodations. For instance, ergonomic office chairs can be considered an assist for someone with a back injury. A standing desk can help with multiple struggles, such as attention and physical impairments.
“Small changes to the office environment can make a person productive and feel included and supported,” Ellen says. “Inclusivity is something that individuals with disabilities can identify with; I think employers want to make their workplaces more inclusive. This is one way for them to do it.”
Educating employers on individual differences has been a success factor for Ellen and her colleagues. For instance, one counselor established a relationship with Winnebago, and now they place neurodiverse candidates in their production roles. The counselor identified that many of her clients have excellent attention to detail when reading blueprints and constructing complex equipment. This skill set is an advantage to a camper manufacturer.
“I think it’s a matter of finding strengths in a neurodiverse population,” Ellen says. “And changing the interview process – a traditional interview process may not benefit that [neurodiverse] individual. Give them a problem to solve, and you’ll see how well they solve problems and how creative they are.”
Ellen says that’s a piece of her role – to educate employers on how they can change a few things to build a diverse and inclusive hiring process.
Ellen joined the NRWA because she attended one of our webinars. She said she loved the educational side of our mission and wants to continue growing in resume writing skills.
Ellen Sokolowski, MS, CRC, is an advocate for the disabled and neurodiverse, which shows in her dedication to forwarding this cause. She has served as the president and in several other board positions with The National Rehabilitation Association. She’s also received three awards for her dedication to service: the Yvonne Johnson Leadership Award (National Rehabilitation Association), Max T. Prince Meritorious Service Award (National Rehabilitation Association), and the Gerry Byers Memorial Award (Iowa Rehabilitation Association). Ellen holds a Master’s degree in Counseling and Personnel Service from Drake University and is a Certified Rehabilitation Counselor. Learn more about Ellen’s work at IVRS.Iowa.Gov and find her online at LinkedIn.com/in/ellensokolowski.