'Many people with I/DD have the motivation, ambition and ability to work and earn a paycheck.'

Most Oregonians are familiar with Lake Tahoe, the beautiful, deep blue body of water in northern California and Nevada. Maybe you've visited the snowcapped Sierra Nevada Mountains in the winter to ski, in the summer to hike or visited a casino to gamble.

Most have not ventured in to the lake's frigid water at any time of the year.

Lake Tahoe has an average water surface temperature of 53 degrees Fahrenheit, sometimes nearing 65 degrees in the summer months. However, just a few feet below the surface, temperatures can drop to as low as 43 degrees. It can mean death to a swimmer who dives into the deep blue unprepared.

This is the body of water that Portland swimmer Karen Gaffney entered to pursue, endure and achieve, with grit and determination, her goal of swimming 9 miles across Lake Tahoe to raise money and awareness for The National Down Syndrome Congress.

Karen is not only an athlete, she is a college graduate, an accomplished public speaker and a woman with Down syndrome.

Karen did not let her disability stop her from living the life she wanted and pursuing her goals. With the support of her family, she completed high school at St. Mary's Academy in Portland and earned a two-year associate's degree of science at Portland Community College with the goal of finding meaningful employment.

This proved a much greater feat than swimming the ice-cold waters of Lake Tahoe.

Employment opportunities for people with Down syndrome or any intellectual and/or developmental disability (I/DD) are indeed a challenge, even in today's record-low unemployment.

People with disabilities often experience rejection due to unconscious bias or the assumption that because of their disability, they are unable to work and contribute.

They may be overlooked due to stigma from the past, fears of the unknown and unfounded myths, causing the unemployment rate for people with disabilities to be at 10.5 percent, compared to the 3.4 percent rate frequently mentioned for the general population.

Yet many people with I/DD have the motivation, ambition and ability to work and earn a paycheck.

I recently interviewed Karen and asked what employment means to her. She replied simply. "It means everything to me."

Currently employed at Providence Health Services in Portland as an administrative assistant, Karen works four days a week for a total of 25 hours. She works in three different areas of the Children's Developmental Health Department completing various clerical tasks and greeting patients and families. With support from her team at Providence and her job coach, she has learned the daunting Epic healthcare software program, practicing with as much determination and diligence as she put forth to swim in Lake Tahoe.

However, obtaining work was not an easy task for Karen — in fact, one she will admit was more difficult than her swim across Lake Tahoe. When asked what advice Karen had for job seekers with disabilities, she stated, "Don't give up."

She explained how important it is to be an advocate for yourself, to utilize your own network of friends and associates to help make connections for potential opportunities, and to reach out and "talk to the person," making a personal connection with the hiring manager.

To call attention to the employment challenges of people with disabilities, October was slated as National Disability Employment Awareness Month with the 2018 theme of "America's Workforce: Empowering All." The month has been acknowledged nationally since 1945 with the mission to educate and celebrate the contributions of workers with disabilities.

Cindy Bahl is director of business development at Dirkse Counseling and Consulting, a sponsor of Amplify! Success.

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