Businesses seek to expand opportunities for disabled workers

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 RE/MAX Prestige real estate agency in Costa Mesa, California, after the owners heard that he'd spent six years applying for jobs at hundreds of companies and finding nothing but negative mindsets.

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," says Thornback, 36, who uses a wheelchair.

While some jobs he applied for would have required him to do errands, which he couldn't have done, at many places he never got a clear explanation of why he wasn't considered. 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 RE/MAX 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's 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 says, such as, "'You can park your wheelchair here for two hours a day and we'll pay you and we can feel better about ourselves.'"

The kind of disability a person has can vary, and can be cognitive or physical. So employees may be capable of different types of work. They do face similar 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 three 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 says.

Cirone has since started assisting shoppers, helping them pick out clothes. Sales haves increased since she began working at the store, the busiest of the three locations. While the Coxes would like to hire Cirone full time, she wants to do volunteer work the other two days.

There are plenty of people who want to be hired, an "untapped" talent pool, according to Joyce Bender, owner of Bender Consulting Services, a company that recruits workers with disabilities.

For businesses that are interested, Bender suggests resources including organizations that help people with disabilities, and state and local agencies including unemployment offices. Many universities have offices that provide services to students with disabilities, including job placement. Colleges, Bender noted, are a good resource for owners who want staffers with science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills.

Business owners do need to abide by federal and state laws if employees with disabilities need help balancing 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, says Anne Marie Estevez, an employment law attorney with Morgan Lewis in Miami.

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, New Jersey. "The employer has the right to let them go."

Curtis Boyd had recruited a man with neurological problems to work at Future Solutions Media, a Los Angeles-based company that helps businesses handle negative online reviews. But the staffer was unable to sit in front of a computer for hours at a time, and had to leave the job.

Though it didn't work out in that case, Boyd said he would hire a job candidate with a disability again.

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 16-year-old young man two years ago for his Chick-Fil-A franchise restaurant in Buena Park, California, he knew the new staffer would likely need some extra training, and would have a job coach to help as needed. Hollins left it at that.

The man started out by bringing food to customers at their tables and cleaning up after they left. Within a few months, the job coach left — the employee didn't need any help getting his work done. As time went on, the man sought and was given more responsibilities, and now helps with maintenance tasks.

"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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