It’s a story we’re all too familiar with. Whether the experience is first-hand or it happened to a friend of a friend, the message is loud and clear: “People with disabilities can’t work.”
Folks like Kaylee Merrick and Julie Propp are here to prove that myth wrong. Merrick, 24 has a history of PTSD and extreme anxiety which can lead to panic attacks. She states, “I used to be considered a freak… and told to act normal. What is normal? I don’t even know what that is.” With her employment at CVS, not only is she earning fair wages, she receives coaching from management if a problem should arise. That way she can identify areas that need improvement and work towards new goals. Merrick describes her employment as not just a job, but a family.
Julie Propp landed her first job ever just short of 2 years ago – at age 55. She used to load boxes in workshops run by agencies that help people with disabilities, but never had a traditional job due to a developmental disability. She is now working part -time at a Kwik Trip convenience store, making sure coffee cups are stocked and things are kept clean. Not only is Propp earning more, she prefers this job over the other. “It’s more money down there and more hours. Some of the customers are so nice.”
Places like CVS and Kwik Trip are not the only retailers opening their doors to employing people with disabilities. “There’s a growing cadre of companies that look at people with disabilities as an untapped talent pool,” says Carol Glazer, CEO of the National Organization on Disability. “When people spend their entire lives solving problems in a world that wasn’t built for them, that’s an attribute that can be translated into high productivity in the workforce.” High productivity and low turnover rate. Since the launch of Kwik Trip’s program of integrating people with disabilities into their workforce in 2013, turnover for retail helpers was just 9% – compared to 45% for all part -time employees.
The number of people with disabilities in white-collar jobs is also growing. Microsoft long has hired people with autism for software developer and data scientist positions as part of its normal recruitment. However, many candidates were being screened out due to telephone interviews and testing regimens. Microsoft has since changed their recruitment process to be more accommodating, allowing for more time and downplaying things such as simple “yes” or “no” answers to questions, or lack of eye contact. Hiring managers have been trained to follow up on such cues and the result has been successful. Joey Chemis, 30, a Microsoft data scientist who previously worked minimum-wage jobs despite degrees in applied math and statistics, says prior hiring managers “found me a little intense.” Microsoft “let us spend time on campus getting acclimated.”
Some companies have been hesitant to hire disabled workers because of concerns about safety and liability, says Glazer and Janet Bruckshen, head of Washington Vocational Services, which places and trains disabled workers. Remedies are widely available. Accommodations can be made such as smartphones with voice recognition to help deaf workers talk to customers. Robert Holder, 31, who has multiple sclerosis and recently got a part-time job at the welcome desk of a YMCA, has asked for a phone headset and a special keyboard. “You feel like you’re getting back to society,” says Holder who had searched eight months for work.
Shannon Goodall, 31, hunted fruitlessly for a job for five years. She has a learning disability that makes multitasking and interacting with customers difficult. But Papa Murphy’s modified her job description, allowing Shannon to prepare food while shifting her customer-service duties to co-workers. “I was looking for a job that wasn’t secluded,” says Goodall, adding that she was isolated from customers and co-workers in previous positions. Noting a high turnover rate, Goodall’s manager says of Shannon, “It’s really nice having someone around who I can depend on.”
Is it a myth that people with disabilities can’t work? The answer is yes.
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