From left: Chrissa Dunn, Rose Burke, Kim Klukas, An Le and Valerie Velazquez.

National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) takes place every year in October to recognize individuals with disabilities and their contributions to their workplaces. The NDEAM theme for 2023 is “Advancing Access and Equity.”

In observance of NDEAM, the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) recognized The Hormel Institute as an outstanding Minnesota employer for work in “Advancing Access and Equity” for people with disabilities.

Kim Klukas, Research Support Manager, accepted the award with other members of her department at an event in Maple Grove in early October. The event was hosted by Vocational Rehabilitation Services (VRS) and State Services for the Blind (SSB), two divisions of DEED. 

The recognition stems from the Research Support department’s work with Cedar Valley Services, Inc., a Mower County organization that offers a range of programs geared toward employment opportunities and community living activities. One of these programs helps match individuals with disabilities with employment opportunities that align with their skills and interests. 

That’s how Rose Burke, a Research Support Attendant who began an internship at The HI in June of 2022, connected with Klukas and the rest of the Research Support team. 

After an initial meeting, Burke and a program coordinator toured the facility and discussed what the position would entail.

Long story short: it’s ended up being a good fit for all involved. The internship went so well, in fact, that Burke was ultimately offered and accepted a permanent position.

“I just wanted to try something new, and not be doing the same old stuff,” said Burke. “It’s helped me get motivated, get moving, learn new skills, and meet new people.”

Burke added she likes the working dynamic she and her team have—they like to joke around with each other, she said, but they’re still able to get their work done.

Throughout the onboarding process, the department collaborated with a coordinator from Cedar Valley Services, Inc. to ensure Burke had the resources and training needed to be successful in her position, and periodic coordinator check-ins continue to take place. As time went on, the department also adjusted certain processes so Burke could more easily and independently take care of her responsibilities, while also having the opportunity to learn new skills.

“I think we’re a well-knit team,” added Klukas. “Everybody gets along really well, and they all work hard independently, and also as a group. … And for me, being in a supervisor position, I like being able to grow my staff, both professionally and personally.”

In addition to supporting her staff, Klukas also mentioned that she enjoys seeing how the work her team does supports the many innovative research projects underway at The Hormel Institute so that they can be successful.

“I think having Rose on the team has brought a lot of increased morale to the group, too. It’s just been more fun,” said Klukas. 

“A lot of people say I could have been a comedian, because I’m funny,” added Burke.

‘They are us’

It should be noted that “disability” covers a wide range of conditions. Some disabilities are visible, while others are not. Where a particular disability may impact one area of a person’s life, it may also strengthen their skills in another. And of course, individuals with the same disability can have vastly different experiences. 

Almost everyone is directly or indirectly impacted by disability in some way. Nationally, one in four adults has some type of disability, according to the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC). And according to American Community Survey data analyzed by DEED, nearly 158,000 people with disabilities are in the state’s workforce.

Here’s how CareerForce Minnesota puts it: “People with disabilities are not ‘them,’ they are ‘us.’ Nearly everyone is affected by disability in some way. … Disability is the only protected class that spans all economic, racial, gender and religious groups. And disability is the only such group that you can join at any time — often without warning.

“[T]he ADA is not primarily about compliance, or about forcing you to do anything that’s not in your company’s best interest. It’s about recognizing opportunity, thinking outside the box, and recognizing that a lot of your business needs can be met by employing people with disabilities. It’s good for you and your business. People with disabilities spend a lot of time learning to solve problems. Which employers benefit the most from good problem solvers? All of them!”

Outside-the-box opportunities

Sentiments like the ones above are echoed in conversation between Burke and Klukas. 

Klukas said one of the opportunities created by the program is just that: the opportunity to think outside the box and introduce new perspectives and approaches. It’s also an opportunity to allow people with different skill sets to be involved with the work that goes on within The HI, she added.

“For me, it’s an opportunity to think outside the box and think of different ways of doing things — which, I think, as a supervisor, is a good thing,” said Klukas. “Everybody’s lights come on at different times. You may teach one way, and three quarters of the people understand something, but the rest of them are like, ‘That doesn’t make sense to me.’ So if you teach it in a different way, or from a different perspective, a light may come on, like, ‘Oh, yeah, I get that.’ It’s helped to really be able to break things down so that I can be a better teacher to my employees. So I think of it as a positive thing.”

“She pretty much said it,” quipped Burke. 

“It’s been a really cool learning experience for me,” said Klukas. “And it’s been really nice to have such a breath of fresh air in the group. Somebody with a different perspective that can give us a different way of looking at things.”

What’s next? 

The “-ing” in “advancing” is apt, as it suggests an ongoing process, which the work of establishing and maintaining an inclusive environment very much is. 

One of The Hormel Institute’s overarching goals is to continue our work toward our defined Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) objectives in order to achieve inclusive organizational excellence. This involves several different ongoing initiatives, all aimed at fostering a welcoming, collaborative, productive, and healthy environment for all employees. 

To learn more about NDEAM, disability employment resources, and common disability employment myths to dispel, visit