LIFE WITHOUT LIMITS
ABOUT THIS SERIES
The Governor’s Council for People with Disabilities uses the month of March to not only recognize those with special challenges but to remind us of the ways we are all the same.
We learn. We play. We work. We worship.
This week, the Daily Reporter celebrates our similarities. Each day, we’ll bring you the story of an extraordinary individual who inspires those around them not in spite of a disability, but because of it.
GREENFIELD — When customers come through her line at Marsh, Sabrina Michael greets each one with a shy smile and politely asks whether they’d like paper or plastic. With 10 years of experience, she knows how to pack each bag of groceries just right.
Tom Cole puts in 40 hours a week at the Shares Inc. factory just south of downtown Greenfield. He does a variety of small assembly and packaging jobs, but he says he’s best at working with the bolts and screws.
Daniel Hughes celebrated his third anniversary this month as a guest attendant at Culver’s. He’s called upon to do a variety of things around the restaurant, from swabbing floors to helping customers carry their trays. His boss describes him as one of his most dedicated employees.
There is seemingly nothing unusual about these workers’ experiences. They show up on time, they work hard, and they are proud to earn a paycheck. But these employees are some of the rare few with disabilities who have found a place in the job market.
Individuals with disabilities make up just 6 percent of the workforce, according to a recent report from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Between 2008 and 2010, those with disabilities were about one third as likely to find jobs as those without disabilities, the agency reports.
Michael, Cole and Hughes are all gainfully employed, though each has a limitation that at some point caused others to doubt their ability to contribute to the job force.
Experts believe the problem is not intolerance but fear.
‘One of us’
Karl Meyer had no doubt about hiring Hughes when the 30-year-old came to Culver’s in March 2009.
Meyer, the restaurant’s general manager, has a brother who has a disability, and he grew up knowing that individuals with challenges are often far more capable than people realize.
Culver’s has a long-standing relationship with Shares Inc., an entity that provides a variety of services to those with disabilities, including job support.
Along with operating its own factory where people with disabilities work, Shares also partners with local businesses like Culver’s to match clients up with jobs in which they can excel.
When Hughes joined the staff, Meyer said he was confident his new employee would rise to the occasion, just as others had before him.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time, they meet or exceed our expectations,” Meyer said.
That’s just the kind of thing Clifford Strachman likes to hear.
Strachman, executive director of Shares, says it’s important to overcome stereotypes associated with hiring a person with a disability.
Namely, it doesn’t mean they won’t be up to the task put before them.
“Not everybody is mentally disabled,” Strachman said. “We have people of all different levels of functionality.”
Some Shares clients are matched with open positions in the community, while others, like Cole, are hired directly by Shares to work in one of the company’s factories.
Area companies hire Shares to do simple labor, and workers are paid per unit completed.
Cole has been working for Shares since 2005. Along with factory work, he also takes life skills classes at the facility.
Cole is developmentally disabled, but he is one of the company’s most high-functioning employees.
He might also be one of the friendliest.
The 46-year-old has an uncanny knack for remembering people’s birthdays, a skill he often uses to connect with new people after introducing himself.
Like an employee at any business, work is where Cole has found the people he considers his friends and family.
“It’s a nice environment, and it’s nice to have friends,” he said. “All the staff here, I love very much. They’re just special.”
Like anyone who’s found a job they love, workers with disabilities do their best to please their employers as they complete each task.
Michael, 47, says one of her best qualities as a Marsh employee is showing up on time, every time.
“I’m never late, and I always have a smile on my face when I go in,” said Michael, who was also placed at her job through Shares. “The customers like to see me smile.”
Helping clients find employment where they’ll feel fulfilled is key to their success, said Meredith Davis, one of Shares’ employment specialists.
“Not only is the additional income helpful, … but through working in the community, I’ve seen a lot of people really blossom from that independence,” she said. “They’re expected to work like any other workers.”
And they do, when given the chance, Meyers said.
“Here, you’re one of us,” he said.
More than charity
In the past, agencies that advocated for people with disabilities focused solely on finding their clients a job – any job. Today, the trend is moving toward finding not just a job, but a job that is the perfect fit, said Kathy Bernhardt, director of resource development for Tangram, a nonprofit founded in Hancock County in 1985.
Tangram, now based in Indianapolis, works with people with disabilities to help them live independently in their communities.
Aiding clients in the job search is the first step to securing the financial piece of that puzzle, and, in the best cases, results in less dependence on government aid, Bernhardt said.
The nonprofit’s new initiative, Tangram Business Resources, provides employers with long-term strategies and support to create a disability-inclusive workplace.
Last month, Tangram purchased database software that allows them to input information about a client’s education and skills and match those criteria with needs in the job force.
Employing a person with a disability should benefit all parties involved, not just the employee, Bernhardt said.
“It’s always about the bottom line of the business,” she said. “This isn’t about charity, and that’s what we are trying to get away from.”
Matching up a client’s skills with what’s available in the job market results in a better work experience for both the employee and the employer, Bernhardt said, and Tangram expects their client to take their responsibilities seriously.
“If you can’t do the job, you don’t have a job,” she said. “You have to be able to do the job just like your coworker. It’s really raising up people with disabilities with more dignity and not putting them off.”
Tangram recently partnered with Leadership Hancock County to survey local businesses about their employment opportunities and willingness to hire someone with a disability.
Bernhardt hopes studying the results of that survey, which have not yet been released, will help Tangram better connect with members of the community who are interested in creating a more inclusive workplace.
“It would be nice to have the conversation,” she said. “I think that the more that we can educate and help companies embrace what a disability-inclusive workforce looks like, some of that fear will go away.”