During National Disability Employment Awareness Month, we’re is saluting people who have stepped ahead, above and beyond in the name of equitable opportunity and employment for people with disabilities.
In a time of worker shortages and employment uncertainty, actively attracting and hiring people with disabilities is a way to recruit a dedicated workforce, boost DEI efforts that benefit everyone, and enhance overall business success by adding different perspectives and ways of thinking.
I’ve been working in the field of developmental disabilities since 1980. I have worked with children, with adults, in day services, and in residential services. My passion really is about staff development. I like to help organizations feel successful, and the people that work there be successful. Success is about helping people we serve have positive control over their lives
About six years ago, MDI developed soft skills training program with Maven Enterprise, to support people to be more successful in an employment setting. The program started in Grand Rapids with employees who worked at MDI, people with and without disabilities. We had supervisors and managers and people from the floor. The idea of the class is always that were all in this together, and anybody who’s in the room must participate. And we had kind of a remarkable experience. The program was successful and expanded to other MDI locations and they began to invite other groups to join.
We started to invite other people and organizations, like people from Special Olympics and today services and school transition programs. If people needed support they brought job coach from another organization, or someone brought their dad or their sister. The rule of the class was that everyone had to participate. Repeatedly, we saw great things: people helping people, people trying to do things differently. There were people helping others who didn’t read or write very well. Other people were helping and supporting people who didn’t have English as their first language. Everyone worked in small groups on tasks in the class, and it was just this beautiful thing.
When I teach the class, I see people’s confidence growing, they becoming more willing to participate, share and talk with others. This happens in every single class. I always get comments like, wow, I didn’t think that person was going to talk, but look at her now! People try things, and then they’re like, “Oh, I did that! I felt a little bit of success. I might be able to do that again.”
We focus on interpersonal skills, how do you connect with the person sitting next to you? Or we’ll have a conversation about first impressions. I ask, “What was your first impression of me? What would be somebody else’s first impression of you?” We actually teach people about proper greetings, about how to shake hands and make eye contact, to smile and lean in. We have conversations that are really going to help people when they have a community job. We talk about appreciating an employer, or being respectful of time, or describing what’s the professional way to handle hard situations.
The one thing that always surprises me is the elevator speech. In our second session, every person writes an elevator speech about themselves, and we practice it throughout the class, and then at the graduation ceremony, each person delivers theirs. There’s confidence that people gain, just from standing up in front of the room, projecting their voice, sharing who they are. I don’t know if it’s just that activity or if it’s the culmination of the class, but we always, always hear comments about increased confidence and self-esteem. During these sessions, people rise to the challenge, over and over and over again.