Job retention rate is high for disabled employees

"Everybody in this room ... we are all individuals ... and we all have different strengths and expertise," said Laura Berner, executive director of Udac, a Duluth nonprofit.

Jennifer Poirier, who receives Udac vocational services, works in the housekeeping department of the Duluth Sheraton. (Photo submitted)

"Everybody in this room ... we are all individuals ... and we all have different strengths and expertise," said Laura Berner, executive director of Udac, a Duluth nonprofit.

Speaking at the Chamber Ambassadors luncheon Tuesday, Berner asked audience members to raise their hands if they had heard of Udac. The majority of those in the room did so. But when Berner asked if they knew what Udac is, no hands shot up.

"I've been told we are one of the best kept secrets in Duluth," she said. The agency will be 45 years old next month.

Udac works with adults with disabilities, helps them find employment and enhances their life skills. The agency focuses on what people can do, rather than the disability and what an individual cannot do.

"Work is a huge part of what we do," sad Zac Tuominen, supported employment program manager for Udac. He said many people with disabilities are not given a choice and are often told, "This is what we have open. This is what you get to try."


Udac gives its clients the opportunity to explore what they are good at. "We find out, 'Who is this person what's really important to them? What are they interested in and what are those skill that support those interests?'" Tuominen said.

"People with disabilities have a larger percentage rate of job retention," he said.

When UDAC started, it served the disabled from ages birth to senior citizen. That's because it wasn't until the 1970s that a law was passed saying that disabled children had a right to attend public schools. Now the agency serves ages 18 years to senior citizen.

The agency has 150 clients with a staff of 67. The general public sees the building on Sixth Avenue East, but the actual address of the facility is 500 E. 10th St. Its programs include Art Junction and the STEPs Fitness Center.

The center-based employment is work done by the clients in their facility and includes mailing, shredding, laundry services and assembly and customized packaging.

An example of community-based worked crews is a group of clients with a supervisor who do cleaning at a facility such as a business or church. Supported employment services assist people with disabilities who are interested in finding community-based jobs where they make minimum wage or better.

Tuominen said often there is a small job at a company that needs to be done, but everyone is too busy to take time to do it. He calls those tasks gap-fillers. "Maybe it's an opportunity for a person with a disability," he said.

The non-profit started in 1969 and was named United Day Activity Center. In the 1970s the name became United Developmental Achievement Center of Duluth. "Udac" became the legal name in the 1990s.


Fitness is another skill that Udac supports. This Saturday, Sept. 20, Udac is sponsoring a "Walk a Mile in Our Shoes" fundraiser at 9 a.m. at Malosky Stadium on the University of Minnesota Duluth campus.

If you are reading this early Saturday morning, there is still time to join UMD athletes in supporting "steps," providing an exercise environment for people of all abilities who prefer a smaller, individualized, fitness center. Entry fee is $20 for an individual to enter, $30 for family and $10 for students.

If you don't have time to join the Walk a Mile event you may donate online at .

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