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Embracing Disabilities in the Workplace

Gianna Jackson greets visitors at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, answering questions about exhibits and moving over the sleek floors with a crutch under her arm to help her walk.

Born with a disease that weakens her bones, Jackson cannot stand for very long. She uses a wheelchair for traveling long distances. She came to the museum through Bridges … From School to Work, a program from the Marriott Foundation for People with Disabilities (Marriott International is No. 14 in The 2011 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity). The program works with participating employers to place high-school students with disabilities into mutually beneficial jobs.

“Working here has been a dream,” Jackson says. “I lived a really sheltered life and Bridges opened a door to me. Everyone just treats me like a regular person. I am a regular person, but that never really registered with me before. Now I see that, ‘OK, I fit in.’”

Jackson tells her story in one of several videos from Bridges participants that will be featured on the program’s new website for prospective employers, students, donors and partners. In the videos, students talk about their experiences and their lives at work. The new site, BridgestoWork.org, is scheduled to launch in the fall and it will make extensive use of video to tell the Bridges story. It will allow visitors to make donations to the program (which was not possible on the previous website) and will integrate social media and networks.

“On the new site, you’ll see and hear the stories of the young people who’ve been transformed by this program. It’s completely unscripted,” says Tad Asbury, vice president and executive director of the foundation.

Bridges has operated for more than 20 years and has placed more than 12,000 young people with disabilities in jobs with 3,500 different employers. The program operates in eight cities: Atlanta; Chicago; Dallas; Los Angeles; Oakland, Calif.; Philadelphia; San Francisco; and the District of Columbia metro area.

People with disabilities make up 19 percent of the U.S. population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. President Barack Obama signed Executive Order 13548 in July 2010 calling for an additional 100,000 individuals with disabilities to be employed by the federal government over five years.

But only 21 percent of working-age people with disabilities are in the U.S. workforce, a figure that hasn’t changed since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. (In comparison, 70 percent of working-age people without disabilities are in the workforce.) More than half of the 250,000 young people who leave special-education programs each year are unemployed a year later, with many more underemployed, according to the foundation.

Bridges’ goal is to close that employment gap. “Bridges focuses on employers’ needs,” Asbury says. “We work to match those needs to young people’s skills.” It works. According to the foundation’s website, nearly 40 percent of employer participants have made multiple hires through the program.

Companies can also take best practices from organizations in The 2011 DiversityInc Top 10 Companies for People With Disabilities. All 10 companies, for example, actively recruit and have employee-resource groups for people with disabilities.

Read about how to start an employee-resource group for people with disabilities.

Value to Employer

Karen Kennedy Fink of the National Constitution Center spoke fondly of Gianna Jackson in her video. “Gianna has been a wonderful addition to the staff. She is personable and such an active member of the team. We really rely on her,” Fink says. “She was a little reserved when she first came in, but since she’s started, she’s really opened up. It’s been fulfilling to see that.”

Dana Orduno started at the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority as an intern filing paperwork through Bridges. “When I first started here, I was scared,” Orduno says in her video. With coaching from her Bridges representative, Orduno worked on keeping eye contact with people she spoke to and getting around a huge office building. Within two years, she was promoted to supervise the high-school interns.

“She was very shy at first,” Orduno’s supervisor, Marion Colston, says. “She’d come in every day saying, ‘I don’t know if I can do this, Marion. You’ve given me a lot of responsibility.’ I said, ‘Dana, you can do it.’ All she needed was encouragement. She does a great job.”

1 Comment

  • Shelli Brotebeck

    I am a 42 year old woman with a disease that makes my bones as brittle as a 70 year old. I am having a hard time in the workforce because I look perfectly healthy, so people expect me to act perfectly healthy. The plain fact is I will never be healthy unless I get the miracle I pray for. I have a smile on my face most of the time although I’m in extreme pain 24 hours a day.
    I’m happy to read that some workplaces are hiring people with disabilities – some of us are the hardest working people you will ever meet.

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