I am 21 years old, and I was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when I was born. A walker gets me around my house, and a wheelchair gets me around the world outside of it. I rode a different bus to school than most students did since they had no need of a wheelchair lift.
It takes me longer than most people to access certain areas because I have to find a ramp to bypass a set of stairs, find and press a button to open doors (provided the button works), or wait on an elevator to take me to a higher floor in a building. If I happen to be outside when it rains, using an umbrella is actually an inconvenience. Wherever I go, I realize that there are people who may stare at me, make comments or assumptions about me, or call me an inspiration just for doing the same things they are.
These people define me by my disability. They have no way of knowing that I took and excelled in several Advanced Placement courses in high school; I studied French and am currently studying Japanese; I can play the ocarina; I am pursuing a degree in Computer Game Design and Development; I voted in the last presidential election; and I recently obtained my learner’s permit.
None of these has anything to do with my having cerebral palsy. Having a disability means living with certain limitations, but it does not affect my goals and aspirations in life. It never has, and it never will. Some people may define me by my disability, and while it is a part of who I am, I live every day knowing that my disability does not define me. I am defined by what I allow to define me.
While I have some issues and concerns some people will never have, I have much in common with many people at and around my age regardless of a disability. I am equally curious and driven just like they are. But, just like my peers without disabilities, I too worry about getting a job once a I graduate college.
As we celebrate 70 years of the National Disability Employment Awareness Month this month, I must make known my desire to live independently and be gainfully employed in the “real world,” something for which I could not be prepared just by taking a class or reading a textbook (every once in a while, I have to look up how to write a check correctly, for example). I want to apply my degree in game design and development to further advance science and technology – and perhaps even help the mainstream community learn that a disability is not a limit to potential.
I have to learn skills I do not yet have to apply the skills I do have to reach my goals. In any case, I know that even though I have a disability, even though the road upon which I embark may have more potholes than I would like, getting to my destination, whatever it is, is very much possible.
BIO: Kenneth Gagne has been a Georgia resident for 17 years and currently resides in Lilburn. He is a 2012 graduate of Parkview High School and a former student at Southern Polytechnic State University, which is now Kennesaw State University.Gagne is an avid bibliophile and can often be found reading horror fiction, historical fiction,or someone’s autobiography. He also enjoys writing, which I do most often when practicing Japanese vocabulary and syntax. Most recently, he has taken up swimming and considers nothing else quite as refreshing, liberating or invigorating.
By Jennifer Bosk
The Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities (GCDD) has made integrated employment of individuals with disabilities a top goal in its Five Year Plan.
That’s why State Representative Sheila Jones (D-District 53) saw first-hand how Matthew Roush, an operations analyst at SunTrust, has been so impactful to his team. The visit was part of GCDD’s third annual Take Your Legislator to Work Day (TYLTWD), which kicked off during October’s National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM).
TYLTWD is an opportunity for employees with disabilities in Georgia to invite their legislator(s) to visit them at work. The goal is to show the far-reaching benefits to employers, employees and communities alike of hiring people with disabilities and create opportunities to form and nurture relationships with their elected officials.
Through a partnership program between Briggs & Associates and Atlanta Public Schools, Matthew Roush interned in several different departments at SunTrust. He is now a permanent employee with benefits. The SunTrust team learned what Roush needs to be successful; accommodated his visual impairment by providing double monitors with large text that enable him to work as efficiently as possible; and supports his growth as a person and an employee.
Rep. Sheila Jones (D-District 53) visited Matthew Roush at SunTrust Bank in Atlanta where he works as an operations analyst.His job as an operations analyst includes data entry, document scanning and monitoring quality control while using assistive technology to help with his visual impairment. Roush also has a hearing impairment and an intellectual disability.
Through TYLTWD, Rep. Jones met Roush, visited his workplace and spoke to him about his job duties and great coworkers.
“I was so thrilled when I received the invitation to participate in this special day. I enjoyed the time I spent at work with Matthew. It was great to see him at his desk working on a computer and using the scanner without assistance. It showed me that with job training, people with disabilities can perform their job just like everyone else. Matthew’s work is necessary and needed at the company where he is working,” said Rep. Jones.
In Peachtree Corners, GA, Jack Prettyman welcomed State Representative Scott Hilton (R-District 95) to his place of work, Wesleyan School, to advocate and show the work he does as a member of the facilities and ground crew.
Prettyman, 23, who is diagnosed with Down syndrome, works weekdays from 8 AM to noon and is one of the busiest people on Wesleyan’s campus. He walks nearly 15,000 steps a day crossing the grounds while he handles recycling, sweeping mats, mopping the gym floor, setting up cafeteria tables and dusting benches.
He also took Rep. Hilton on a full campus tour, pointing out sites at the private school as well as his job duties.
“It was awesome to see the critical role Jack plays in Wesleyan’s operations. Jack is a valuable member of the team,” Rep. Hilton said. “I loved the positive impact he has on everyone around him from students, faculty and administration. It was great to see the joy Jack experienced in his work environment – the work is really important to him.
“I am proud of Wesleyan School for seeing opportunities to employ those with disabilities.”
The Council is working to strengthen meaningful employment opportunities that include a livable wage with career advancement; strengthen financial inclusion and asset development efforts for individuals with developmental disabilities; and educate businesses about the diverse workforce.
State Senator Elena Parent (D-District 42) agrees. “I’d like to see more businesses recognize that hiring individuals with disabilities is a win-win. My biggest takeaway was that jobs for people with disabilities are vital. The business gets a dedicated employee and the employee gets self-confidence and a sense of purpose.”
Sen. Parent spent TYLTWD with Christine Sass at Taziki’s Mediterranean Café located in Decatur. Sass, 26, is diagnosed with autism and cerebral palsy.
“Christine is doing great work for Taziki’s. She knows her duties and moves through them efficiently. The job also gives her the ability to practice her interpersonal skills and to be part of a team,” Parent explained.
“I prepare the dining room for opening,” Sass said, which includes tasks such as putting down chairs, wiping down tables, rolling and placing silverware, bagging cookies, setting up the drink machine and sweeping the floor.
To Sass, the best part of her job is getting paid and adds the greatest thing about the company she works for is that her colleagues are friendly.
Through her experience and opportunity, Sass wants people to know that, “People with disabilities want to work; but, it is important to find the right job.”
The Legislative Impact
While building these meaningful relationships are important and benefit both the employer and employee, TYLTWD allows elected officials to understand the positive impact of publicly funded employment supports when they see people with disabilities in action.
Rep. Hilton, who participated for the first time in TYLTWD, shared that he “would love to see the Georgia legislature find ways to incentivize the private sector to encourage the hiring of individuals with disabilities.”Hannah Hibben was visited by Rep. Dale Rutledge (R-District 109) at the Great American Cookie Company in McDonough
Georgia has begun focusing more on employment for people with disabilities. While a handful of organizations are working on finding employment for individuals with developmental disabilities, the work needed to make Employment First happen in Georgia continues to need a strong advocate push – engaging with both the community and legislators about employment issues.
Employment First is an approach to promote the full inclusion of individuals with varying degrees of abilities in the workplace and in the community. Currently 32 states have an official Employment First policy (based on legislation, policy directives, etc.).
While Georgia has Employment First efforts and initiatives underway, no official policy has been created just yet to make integrated employment the preferred service option.
Sen. Parent also explained that the legislature needs to make progress in eliminating the backlog of people waiting for Medicaid waivers, which can enable more people to take advantage of employment.
In 2014, the Home and Community Based Settings (HCBS) Rule, passed down from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, focused entirely on community living and inclusion. The HCBS waivers work to make sure individuals are given full access to the greater community – including opportunities for competitive and integrated employment, a community life conducive to all abilities, control over their own finances and the same services anyone receives.
The passage of the HCBS Rule in 2014, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) and the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act are all shoring up support for Employment First practices in Georgia by building a strong foundation for integrated and inclusive communities.
“Passing legislation that has more impact on corporations hiring people with disabilities is a way the legislature can show their support. The legislature can be invited to discussions to find out ways it can be more involved in Take Your Legislator to Work Day, as well as other programs involving working with people with disabilities,” said Rep. Jones, after her visit with Roush.
When the question of why Elizabeth Cicerchia wanted to work in early child care came up during State Senator Michael “Doc” Rhett’s (D-District 33) TYLTWD visit, Cicerchia shared that some of the jobs she held previously were simply “just jobs.”
But she knows the work she does at Kids R Kids of West Oak in Marietta is what she wants to do as her career. Cicerchia, 35, is diagnosed with Down syndrome.
When seeing all Cicerchia does on the job, Sen. Rhett said the statement “yes, I can too” comes to mind.
“As a retired educator, I worked with children with disabilities from pre-K through high school. We helped them develop life skills in each grade with the goal of preparing them for gainful employment, just like any other student, upon graduation. The collaboration between the school system, community and business interests is a vital link towards helping anyone contribute in a positive manner to our society,” Sen. Rhett said.
Advocating for Employment
GCDD believes visiting an employee at work is the best way to show legislators that people with disabilities want to work and are as capable as anyone at working in real jobs for real wages.
The legislators shared how TYLTWD showed them the win-win results of employees with disabilities and the employers who hire them including the positive impact it makes on all communities.
“People with disabilities who are willing to work should be given a chance to show that they can and will do the job. I believe it is important for people without disabilities to have an opportunity to see up close people with disabilities doing and enjoying their job,” said Rep. Jones.
To keep the momentum and encourage more community members to advocate for employment for people with disabilities, GCDD will hold its Employment First Advocacy Day during the 2018 legislative session on January 31, 2018.
“Wanting to pursue a career is never a courageous act, regardless of whether the job seeker happens to have a disability or not. We all need help and support in some form or another to do our best, but that human truth doesn’t negate anyone’s potentially amazing contribution to an employer,” said Julie Hicks, the career specialist from Briggs & Associates who coaches Cicerchia.
GCDD thanks all of the employees and employers who participated in Take Your Legislator to Work Day. The Council also recognizes and thanks all of the Georgia legislators who took time to attend and learn about employment options for people with disabilities in their communities.
- Hannah Hibben – visited by Rep. Dale Rutledge at the Great American Cookie Company in McDonough
- Emily Shaw – visited by Rep. Clay Cox at disABILITY LINK in Tucker
- Austin Pahr – visited by Rep. Jason Ridley and Sen. Chuck Payne at Nob North Golf Course in Cohutta
- Christine Sass – visited by Sen. Elena Parent at Taziki’s in Decatur
- Bayley Bristow – visited by Sen. Fran Millar at The Elaine Clark Center in Chamblee
- Jack Prettyman – visited by Rep. Scott Hilton at the Wesleyan School in Peachtree Corners
- Elizabeth Terzich – visited by Sen. Mike Dugan at the Carroll County Animal Hospital in Carrollton
- Patrick James Barlow – visited by Sen. Steve Henson at the Park Springs Retirement Community in Stone Mountain
- Matthew Roush – visited by Rep. Sheila Jones at SunTrust Bank in Atlanta
- Mikel Miller – visited by Rep. J. Collins at the Ingles in Villa Rica
- Tyler Blanton – visited by Rep. Steve Tarvin at Unique Fabricating in LaFayette (Visit http://newschannel9.com/news/local/take-your-legislature-towork-day-provides-unique-opportunities to access WTVC Channel 9 ABC news) (This link is no longer active.)
- Katrina Parsons visited by Rep. Beth Beskin at disABILITY LINK in Tucker
- Elizabeth Cicerchia – visited by Sen. Michael “Doc” Rhett at the Kids R Kids Pre-School in Marietta
- Project SEARCH Interns Reuben Stephen, Nick Brundidge, Rayshun Grant, Rashaan Davis, Darrius Elias, Tionna Evans, Sam Thomas and Deshunte Banks – visited by Rep. Carolyn Hugley at TSYS in Columbus
- Project SEARCH Interns: Te’Airra Simpson, Zitavia Freeman, Kemma Paulk, Jimmy Lee Holliman and Iesha Curtis – visited by Rep. Dominic LaRiccia at the Coffee Regional Medical Center in Douglas
- Michelle Phoenix – visited by Rep. Mickey Stephens at Rise Biscuits & Donuts in Savannah
- Project SEARCH Interns and Graduates: Brian Odom, Marnell McGill, Arthur Arnold, Herman Curry, Derrick Edwards and Gary Ceasar – visited by Rep. Darlene Taylor at Archbold Medical Center in Thomasville
To read more in Making a Difference magazine, see below:
This is an excerpt from Randy Lewis’ talk at the Impact Business Speaker Series at Georgia Tech’s Scheller College of Business.
My son, Austin, has autism. He didn’t speak until he was age 10. He’s trying to make up for lost time if you ever get a chance to talk to him. He was the first student with autism to go to his school. He drives. He’s sometimes my chauffeur to the airport. He has a great sense of humor.
He has no friends. He has never been invited to a party and never received an email. He probably reads at about a fifthgrade level. I’ve never played a game with my own son. Not even a game of catch. And most people like him would never be offered a job.
Randy Lewis, former Sr. Vice President of Walgreens, Peace Corps volunteer, Fortune 50 executive and accidental advocate, led Walgreens’ logistics division for sixteen years as the chain grew from 1,500 to 8,000 stores. Lewis introduced an inclusive model in Walgreens distribution centers that resulted in 10% of its workforce consisting of people with disabilities who are held to the same standards as those without disabilities. Its success has changed the lives of thousands with and without disabilities and is serving as a model for other employers in the US and abroad. He is pictured above with his son, Austin.A job can mean the difference in life. Security, friendships, possibilities. But when it comes to getting a job – what I do know as a parent and as an employer – is that people with disabilities die the death of 1,000 cuts. The unkindest of which is a belief by most people that people with disabilities really can’t do the job. It’s a great thing to do if you can afford it, but otherwise it’s a charity thing to do and that’s what I knew [Walgreens] was facing.
We started out trying to hire some people with disabilities. We hired some groups who were bringing in people with disabilities and we gave them certain tasks to do. We were getting them team member T-shirts, name badges just like everyone else. I remember this woman comes up to me, in our Dallas center, and she shows me a picture. Now, I didn’t know if she worked for us or was part of the group, but she must have seen the confusion on my face because she followed with, “Oh, I’m not one of them. I’m their sponsor.”
It struck me like a slap in the face. Those folks were not doing traditional jobs, they weren’t earning the same pay, and they weren’t with “us.” So, I knew we had to do better.
So, we said, let’s ask for volunteers who would like to work with some of the folks in that group, let’s hire them and give them a chance.
One of the people that we hired was a man named Chuck. Chuck is on the [autism] spectrum. He had graduated from college with a degree in accounting. He had never been able to get a job, but we hired him. We learned that Chuck’s favorite color was purple because every time a purple token would pass through his area, Chuck would stop, let out a yell of joy, and start dancing. Something we had never seen.
So maybe this is something we can tolerate in a work environment? Which would we prefer from our employees? Dancing or complaining? Easy choice – dancing.
Perhaps there’s a group of people out there like us who could do the job, but would never be allowed to because of these invisible walls we have around ourselves.
So, we decided that if we’re going to hire people with disabilities, we’re going to start with jobs. And we want a big number, because if this works, we want to be able to demonstrate to the world that people with disabilities can perform as well as anybody else.
If we hire one or two, people can say, “That’s great, Walgreens. You’re a big company. You can afford that.” We wanted to demonstrate that beyond a reasonable doubt, people with disabilities can do the job – and not just jobs for people with disabilities.
Business is not a charity. We have shareholders that are just as demanding as any other company. People with disabilities had to do the same job, receive the same pay and be evaluated on the same performance scale. We needed to measure it, so that’s why we said one-third of the workforce had to be people with disabilities. We said we’re going to change the way people view people with disabilities.
We changed our hiring process. Traditionally, we would put an application out there, and we’d screen them using a computer. We’d pre-screen them, call them up on the phone, have a little pre-interview, and you get called in for a final interview. That’s the process. But we knew people with disabilities, people like Austin, would never be able to get through that process. We needed an alternative.
Now, my son, Austin, exposed me to all the challenges, but he also exposed me to all the possibilities and opened up my thinking. That’s how we knew what we had to do. We needed a way for people with disabilities who can demonstrate their ability to do the job in nontraditional ways.
We found an expert on people with disabilities. We asked them to find 200 people for our Anderson, South Carolina center – 75 on day one and 10 a month thereafter. They understood our jobs, went out and then did the pre-screening. They found the people that they thought would be successful in our environment. Then, we would bring them in, provide the job coaches, and Walgreens would provide supervision and let them do the work on a trial basis. We’d pay them during this period and when they’re successful, we hire them.
One of the people who heard about this was Desiree, who lived in San Diego. Desiree has a rare muscle condition that requires she use a walker every once in a while. She packed up her bags, moved her family across the country a year – a year – before we opened, just for the chance to be in line. She’s a manager at that building today. A person who we would have never hired, because we would have assumed that it would be too difficult for her to get to all the parts of the building, is now a manager of the center in South Carolina.
People ask, “How did this turn out?” This turned out to be the most productive center in the 100-year history of our company. What we had hoped to achieve worked. People with disabilities perform the same work safer and have less workers compensation costs. That’s a big concern among employers.
We also heard, “It’s going to cost more,” or “This is more dangerous, so there are going to be more accidents,” or “Their health costs are going to go up.” Again, these are things that are claimed, but have no evidence in data. We did not find that. Our healthcare costs did not go up, it was the same. Our retention was better and our absenteeism was less.
The center is the most productive in the company’s history. Over 30% of the workforce has a disability. Most had never been able to secure a steady job before. Within four years, over 1,000 people with disabilities were working in centers across the country.
This is a group that shows up. This is all that we hoped for.
To read more in Making a Difference magazine, see below: