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Staff at ZooMontana didn’t realize how difficult getting around the grounds can be for people with disabilities until they hired a man in a wheelchair for a front office job.

“We learned a lot about how noncompliant we were with the (Americans with Disabilities Act),” the zoo’s executive director, Jeff Ewelt, told the Job Services Employer Council on Wednesday. A telephone was mounted too high, and some zoo paths and bridges were difficult for the employee to negotiate.

“We wouldn’t have gotten that education if we hadn’t had him as an employee,” Ewelt said.

Hiring employees with disabilities and providing high school students with disabilities with job shadowing opportunities has not only boosted morale among employees, but it’s also been good for business, Ewelt said.

“We have found that a lot of individuals like to visit organizations that utilize services provided by people with disabilities,” he said. “We all tout that we are equal-opportunity employers, and we need to stand behind that.”

Joining Ewelt during a noon panel discussion at Job Service Billings was Paula Miller, training coordinator at RiverStone Health.

From ages 12-18, Miller suffered debilitating juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. With help from vocational rehabilitation providers, Miller completed college. She worked part-time jobs along the way and was aided by employers who provided accommodations and colleagues who did what she could not in exchange for Miller covering some of their tasks.

“There was no embarrassment when I was asked if I needed accommodations,” she said. “It put a smile on my face to learn that I could be a productive citizen.”

During those early jobs, “I was always trying to make sure I wasn’t being an added burden,” Miller said. “If they didn’t bring up (accommodating her needs), I didn’t either. But then they’d ask me — how can we help you make this better?”

Ewelt said that on occasion, parents ask him or other zoo staff to allow their child with autism, for example, to shadow zookeepers for a few hours to learn more about their job.

“Those opportunities give our staff a sense of purpose,” he said. “They’re already caregivers to animals, so they have a caring side anyway. We are adamant about giving people those experiences, and we’re fortunate to have a platform where we can do that.”

Ewelt said his only original hesitation in hiring people with disabilities and offering job shadow experiences was how it might deter him from his main task — running the zoo.

“At first I was hesitant. What kind of time would it take away from our employees?” he said. “But once everyone’s comfortable, it’s amazing how well it goes. So many people want to be a part of what we’re doing. Why not give them the opportunity?”

“We haven’t seen too many challenges,” he added. “Every now and then we have an individual who is screaming at a public venue, and that can turn heads. We thought about it, but at the end of the day — who cares? People will get over it, and the animals certainly don’t care.”

He said his favorite workday is Monday, the day COR Enterprises, a janitorial service that employs people with disabilities, comes to clean ZooMontana’s main building.

“I have come to love my Mondays. I get hugs from all the COR folks,” he said. “We can all make a difference, and it’s pretty darn simple to do.”

“People like me with a disability appreciate it when you give us a shot,” Miller said.

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City Government Reporter

City reporter for The Billings Gazette.