Saving One Star Fish: Employing People with Disabilities

27 Oct

I had the pleasure of being part of a Rotary Club in Omaha, Nebraska. For the last several years we’ve had an annual award we call the “Able Workplace”, which recognizes employers that are doing an effective job of hiring individuals with disabilites. We started the award to shed light on a significant problem– the unemployment and underemployment of persons with disabilities.

Truth be said, as a society we do a rather terrible job of including the disabled in the workplace. According to a  study released this summer, the unemployment and underemployment of individuals with disabilities is 80% higher than the rest of the population.


To address this, we thought it would be worthwhile to highlight companies that are doing a good job of bringing the disabled into their place of work. We thought if we could shed some light on these companies that we could learn from them and perhaps inspire other companies.

This year we recongized a company that had hired a young man who has been diagnosed on the autism spectrum. He likes to work with computers, and the social services agency that has been working with him thought he might work out doing data entry for this company.

He initally failed the typing test they require, but he was pretty close to passing, so the supervisor invited him to come back the next week. He passed the second time and was employed.

It’s worked out wonderfully.

A couple of things worth noting. This young man, previous to being employed with this company, didn’t have a job and had been languishing at home. What was waste, that a person who could meaningfully contribute was sitting at home for months.

The other thing of note was the company president, when being notified about this recognition from our club for working with this young man, didn’t even know he had a disability! He said to me: “I’ve met him a few times in the hallway and break room, and he just seemed like everyone else around here”.

Just like everyone else.

Yes, folks with disabilities may be a bit different, but they probably have more in common with the rest of us than we realize. Just like us, they want meaningful work that adds value to their employer. They want to be paid fairly for their labor.

They want a chance.

There’s a story about a young girl on a beach throwing starfish back in the ocean. They’ll die if they aren’t returned to the ocean, and the beach is littered with them. A man walking by sees the girl. He asks her: “There are so many star fish. How can you expect to make a difference?” She picked up another star fish, threw it back in the ocean and turned to him and said: “I made a difference for that one.”

None of us can help everyone who is disabled find meaningful employment. But the company we honored this week made a difference for one person. For one good person who just needed a opportunity to show their talents.

Who else out there is ready to make a difference for one “star fish”?

(photo courtesy of stock.exchng)

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