Thursday, October 6, 2011

A Personal Connection to Disability Employment Month

“I haven’t worked in four years, and I got fired from that job,” Dennis mumbled while staring at his shoes.  “I work hard, but people can’t get past my small stature, shy demeanor, and slow learning style.”

Being new to job developing for people with disabilities, I could not see the barriers that Dennis worried about.  I saw a nicely dressed, polite middle-aged man who desperately desired a chance to earn a living.  “Look at your resume,” I said as I pulled it off the printer.  “This is your ticket in the door.  Then, your charming personality will do the rest.”  At last, his smile broke through and I knew he would succeed.

Dennis was my first “placement” back in the spring of 1995.  He went from couch surfing and food stamps to gainfully employed, owning a townhouse, and meeting his first girlfriend within six months.  He stopped by my office often to proudly show me his uniform, which he only took off to wash.  His life was changing forever, and so was mine.

Dennis helped me learn that employment is so much more than a paycheck.  It is purpose – it is status – it is community.  It is a right and responsibility that we all share, no matter our ability level.  Easter Seals Washington gave me the opportunity to work toward the most meaningful outcomes ever, and I soaked up the experience like a sponge.

I did not realize at the time that I was building a foundation for leading a statewide organization.  As President & CEO, I feel more responsibility than I did in those early years; but, I feel just as challenged, just as important, and just as compelled to help people with disabilities achieve their goals. 

Rising unemployment rates and recent business closures worsen the already tough odds of a person with a disability finding any job, let alone a career.  The answer?  Conceptually, it is easy.  Combine a dash of elbow grease with a pinch of creativity.  Work harder and smarter and don’t stop until the bar graph is hitting the top of the white board.  Realistically, changing the employment picture for people with disabilities is going to take negotiation, advocacy, raising expectations, and pushing comfort zones beyond their limits.  Once an employer realizes the tangible and intangible benefits of hiring a person with a disability, he will feel the optimism that I felt the day that Dennis framed his first pay stub.

On behalf of Easter Seals Washington and people with disabilities, spread the word that October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month.

Cathy Bisaillon
President & CEO
Easter Seals Washington

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