Fortunately attitudes toward people with disabilities and their worthiness in the workforce have evolved progressively.
As mom and I took turns pushing a wheelchair containing my brother Bobby to a nearby clinic, the stares from passersby seemed daunting. While mom remained serene, I covered my face in embarrassment and hoped one of my friends wouldn't happen by.
Despite Bobby's cerebral palsy, we often played together, laughed together and watched TV together within the confines of our home. When venturing outside, Mom or Dad had always carried Bobby, and I seldom noticed the furtive glances. But on this occasion with him in a wheelchair, all the unfriendly attention became amplified. For a long time thereafter I shunned appearing publicly with Bobby.
Maybe as a 5-year-old my reaction could be excused, but to this day I regret being so self-centered and not showing more understanding during that time. As was his kindly nature, Bobby forgave me, and as we grew older I came to appreciate his extraordinary aplomb in dealing with the indignities of perceived abnormality.
But what others in the neighborhood felt about Bobby isn't what held him back as he entered adulthood — he and most everyone else with a disability faced the bleak prospect of unemployment. No one wanted to hire a cripple, a gimp, a retard, the impaired, the handicapped, a shut-in and all the other unfair labels cast upon him and millions of others.
The incessant job rejection and frequent humiliation often leads to a downward spiral and out-of-control depression — as it did Bobby.
My brother died 20 years ago, but fortunately attitudes toward people with disabilities and their worthiness in the workforce have evolved progressively. Many employers now recognize that a bird missing a couple of feathers can still fly; a person with mental or physical challenges can still perform productive duties — and often with advantages to the company.
“You will seldom find a more dedicated employee than someone with a disability who's given a chance,” said Melanie Etters, communications director of Florida's Agency for Persons with Disabilities (APD). “The extreme loyalty usually results in a lower turnover rate, and that means saving money.”
TSE Industries of Florida can fully vouch for that. Based in Clearwater with 235 employees, the company — which makes custom rubber molding and plastics — regularly hires people with disabilities.
According to Michelle Hintz-Prange, human resources manager, “Some of our employees (with disabilities) have been with us for many years. Their dependability and total focus on the tasks at hand make them very valued members of our team.”
Rick Klingel, the third-generation president of family owned TSE, nodded in agreement. “It's our privilege to be able to help some of those who can't always find work, but it's not just a gratuitous gesture or a handout,” he said. “It comes back to the company many times over in their reliability and outstanding attitude.”
Paul Christian, a TSE employee for eight years who was hired via a referral agency for persons with disabilities, sat at his own desk station in the plant with other assembly operators.
“I started as a custodian and received promotions along the way,” he said, beaming. “I'm treated no differently here than everyone else, and that makes me feel really good.”
Other companies like TSE hire persons with disabilities, but more capable workers still exist than the number of job opportunities available. To learn how your company can become involved, contact ADP's Tampa office at (813) 233-4300 or go online to http://apd.myflorida.com/.