“People with disabilities aren’t really that much different from you and me. They learn differently, they may look differently, have a different learning style and all that, but they want the same things that you and I want. They want to take that trip, have that job, have friends and BBQ’s, just like us.” Jill Wermers has a passion for helping people with disabilities. This passion drives her and the staff at Ability Building Services to help make life successful and rewarding for people with disabilities.


Wermers is the Supported Employment Supervisor at Ability Building Services DBA Employment Link, a segment of Ability Building Services (ABS) in Yankton, a non-profit organization that helps to provide services to people with disabilities.

Wermers, with ABS for 17 years this fall, was eager to tell me the opportunities that she has been given with the company. Always having the desire to work with people with special needs, she started working for ABS in 2000 doing clerical work in the office to support the Executive Director. After five years in this position, she moved into a position that was closer to her goal, working directly with the people they supported.

She transferred to the day services program where she substituted as a direct support professional and worked in the work area, alternative to work area and in the residences. She regularly substituted in the Supported Employment Department and really enjoyed it. Two years later, she was accepted as a supervisor in the Supported Employment & Community Inclusions department. She has been in this position for the last ten years.

The departments tie in together, the Community Inclusions department a side of their day services that aids the individuals in making connections in the community, assisting them with involvement in volunteering and joining groups and clubs. These “natural supports” help to enhance their life. Think of how great it is when you’re out and about in town and people are friendly with you, talking to you because they know you. These connections might also help them get their dream job, while the volunteer work helps them get a sense of satisfaction.

“One of the greatest practices that we have in our profession is person-centered thinking (PCT). That’s where we start. That’s our core principles.” She explains how about ten years ago, their former Executive Director tapped into this national concept about how to best support people. This practice puts the person at the center of their own life, considering what’s important to them for them to have the best possible life. The concept has thrived for ABS and the former Executive Director has since carried this philosophy across the state of South Dakota in her current role as South Dakota’s Secretary of Human services. Beth Kathol, current ABS Executive Director, has continued with the momentum of the PCT philosophy, providing continued learning opportunities for ABS employees.

The department works with people ages sixteen up to retirement age. If a person has the motivation and drive to work, their age doesn’t matter. The employment specialists have various tools that they use to determine the applicant’s interests, goals, dreams and connections. They then match the applicant to a possible job based on these outcomes.

Other specialists help with the job process: assistance with creating resumes, completing application and preparation for interviews. When the applicant finds a job that they are interested in, they then begin job shadowing. Sometimes the applicant is shown a you-tube video of all aspects of the prospective job, for instance that the work involved in an animal grooming shop includes more than just being around the animals.

After job shadowing, the applicant moves to a process called “situational assessments” where they try the job hands on for two to three hours, perhaps for two or three days to assure that the job and environment works well for them. If it works out, the employment specialist then tries to develop the job.

Wermers and her team will help provide job coaching, assisting to provide tasks to follow and streamlined checklists for simplicity, with the end goal of the applicant being able to complete that job successfully alone. Follow-along services continue after they get the job, where the specialist follows up with the employee and employer to assure that everything is going as should be.

Though employers might be apprehensive about hiring someone through ABS, she tells potential employers, ‘It’s not any different than hiring someone off the street. Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t. But until you give it a try, how will you know?” Just like hiring any employee, if someone didn’t work out in the past doesn’t mean someone else couldn’t work better.

“The state of South Dakota and our department of rehabilitation services is phenomenal. People don’t realize that South Dakota really is at the top of the states in the nation for providing services to people with disabilities,” she proclaims.

Many changes have evolved in the world of supported employment since a federal law was passed in 2016, pushing for students starting at age 16 to be exposed to employment if they desire to. The state has then invested in many programs toward employing school-age students. For instance, programs such as “Project Skills” are a collaboration between the department of rehabilitation services, the school district and the provider, such as ABS, where job coaching and follow-along support are provided and the state pays for the wages of the student. It’s a great program for the employer to partner with, they provide the work site and the opportunity to help introduce a young adult into the workforce and they don’t have to pay the wages.

“We are so lucky to live in the town that we live in, because it is small and there’s a lot of connections within Yankton,” she smiles. Though some larger businesses like the grocery stores and the food service at Mount Marty College provide several employment opportunities for ABS individuals, Wermers explains that that they now have more of their clientele employed in the smaller businesses as well. She gives one example of Dakota Territorial Museum helping one gentleman live out his love for history by letting him assist with archiving items and we talk about how rewarding and self-satisfying it must be for this man to work at his dream job.

“That’s one thing in what we do. It’s not always about the paycheck that a person gets. That’s important. But there’s so much more that’s attached to that. It is the self-esteem. It’s the friendships that are made. It’s that sense of satisfaction, that ‘I’ve got a job to go to, I’m just like everybody else.’”

Grateful to those who play a role in helping those with disabilities, she explains, “We are so fortunate in Yankton, not only the businesses that we have, but also even for the access to medical treatment that we have here, especially for the people that we support. The access to mental health, the access to dental care, the podiatrist, all these different things. I don’t think people think about that but that’s not always available. Especially for those that don’t drive, it’s hard for themto get to those people. I’m always so thankful for the people in Yankton that employ people with disabilities and also for those that provide other services.”

This job, like any, comes with changes and challenges. The biggest change she has seen over the years is the adoption of the PCT philosophy. Pausing for a moment to think of a challenge to her job, she responded that sometimes it’s hard to find the right connection or it might take time to find someone the right job. She feels disheartened when someone says they want a job but later loses the motivation to work. The specialists can coach and try to help in a lot of ways, but they can’t teach motivation or keep someone from losing their job.

The biggest surprise, she explains, is when the person who you think probably isn’t going to be employable turns out to be employable and one of the best employees. “Anybody can be successful if they themselves want to be successful,” she believes.

One story of success that she recalls is one girl who wanted to be a nurse because her sister is in the profession. The girl reviewed a book for Certified Nursing Assistants to see if that might be a suitable option for her, but it was an unlikely fit. The employment specialists found a possible job for her in a dental office, helping to fold washcloths and washing instruments. It was a perfect fit as it was ultimately the medical environment that she desired, wanting to be part of a medical team. She thrived in her new job.

Her genuineness of her next statement is reflected in the sincerity in her face, “I just love what I do, and I think everybody in our department would tell you that.” The job requires the specialists to put their heart in it, to put their selves out there to make contacts and take on a role like that of a salesperson trying to sell a product, but it’s a rewarding experience. She loves the job so much, in fact, that she’ll show up for work even if she wins the lottery!

She laughs, “Who wouldn’t have fun helping somebody achieve their dreams and their goals and watching that happen?”

Wermers and the additional staff members in her department also help find employment for anyone that might have a barrier to employment, such as a visual or hearing impairment. All six of the department members are Certified Employment Support Professional Certified, a nationally-recognized certification. Their goal for the future is to continue finding jobs for anybody that has the drive and determination to work.

The energetic woman continues to help others in her spare time. She is on the Sack Pack board, the Relay for Life board and a volunteer for her church. She spends time boating in the summer with her husband Marty, daughter Molly who is beginning her Master’s program at SDSU and son Ray, a senior at Yankton High School. She enjoys reading in the winter months.

If interested in how the Employment Specialists might be able to assist you, please contact Jill at Ability Building Services DBA Employment Link, 665-2518 extension 37.

She advocates the South Dakota governor’s initiative called Ability for Hire, which brings awareness to an entire untapped workforce out there that is willing and able to go to work. “If people are just willing to give it a chance, give it a try. Think of it as, they are no different than anybody else.”