Original article published on June 2, 2018 by the Star Tribune.

Businesses seek to expand opportunities for workers with disabilities

Many businesses welcome, even recruit, staff from this often untapped and underemployed talent pool. 
By: Joyce M. Rosenberg, Star Tribune

On any weekday morning, Miles Thornback is working on marketing campaigns for real estate agents or dealing with tricky tech issues at the office.

Thornback, who has cerebral palsy, got hired three years ago at the ReMax Prestige real estate agency in Costa Mesa, Calif., after the owners heard that he had spent six years applying for jobs at hundreds of companies and finding nothing but negative mind-sets.

Many small business owners are open to hiring, or specifically recruit, people who have disabilities, sometimes because they want to expand the opportunities for people with talent and skills but who can’t find jobs. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities who want to be hired is 8 percent, more than twice the national average.

“I think a lot of people assume that if you’re disabled, you can’t work,” said Thornback, 36, who uses a wheelchair. In his job, he coordinates with real estate agents and data providers to create postcards and letters that advertise properties for sale.

Jay O’Brien, an owner at the ReMax office, learned about Thornback through Goodwill Industries, which works with the Regional Center of Orange County, an organization that provides training and services for people with developmental disabilities.

O’Brien has been impressed with Thornback’s technical abilities, as he has been able to resolve issues that confounded everyone else. O’Brien and his business partner, Sammer Mudawar, wanted to see Thornback flourish in his work.

We didn’t want it to be seen as a charity move,” O’Brien said.

The kind of disability a person has can vary, and it can be cognitive or physical. So employees may be capable of different types of work. They do face some difficulties in the workplace that others don’t.

Alyssa and Shawn Cox, who volunteer at a camp for children with Down syndrome, created a store greeter position at one of their Clothes Mentor locations in North Carolina with the intention of hiring someone with the genetic chromosomal disorder.

They hired Julia Cirone in December. The 20-year-old who works three days a week began by welcoming customers and “aced that immediately,” Alyssa Cox said.

Cirone has since started assisting shoppers, helping them pick out clothes. Sales have increased since she began working at the store, the busiest of the three locations.

There are plenty of people who want to be hired, an “untapped” talent pool, according to Joyce Bender, owner of Bender Consulting Services.

For businesses that are interested, Bender suggests reaching out to organizations that help people with disabilities and government work agencies. Colleges also could be a resource, especially if staffers need science, math or technology skills.

By law, business owners do need to help employees with disabilities balance their work and their personal or medical needs. That can mean flexible work hours, time off for doctor appointments and desks that can be raised or lowered, said Miami employment law attorney Anne Marie Estevez.

Owners also need to get past some concerns, including what happens if a hire doesn’t work out.

“Some employers feel, if I hire the person, I can never let them go even if they’re doing a terrible job. That’s not true,” says Rebecca Shulman, senior program director at Jewish Vocational Service in East Orange, N.J.

While many owners who recruit employees from nonprofit groups know what the person’s disability is, they cannot under law ask for details, Estevez says.

When Steven Hollins hired a young man two years ago for his Chick-fil-A franchise restaurant in California, he knew the new staffer would likely need some extra training and would have a job coach. Hollins left it at that.

“He’s willing to stay late and learn,” Hollins said. “That kind of attitude in our business goes a long way.”

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