BY IVAN FLORES
Lt. Gov. Brian Calley and Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein visited Washtenaw Community College on Sept. 24 to promote employment opportunities for people with disabilities through the MI Hidden Talent Tour.
They addressed a group of employers, advocates, and observers. The MI Hidden Talent Tour is an initiative to connect employers with a largely untapped but talented workforce. The speakers were joined on the Towsley Auditorium stage by WCC President Rose Bellanca, CEO and Executive Director of the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living Carolyn Grawi, and Recruiting Specialist for Zingerman’s Tracie Wolfe.
About 400 businesses are taking part in the MI Hidden Talent initiative. Big local ones include Meijer, Kroger and Zingerman’s.
Employers who take the time to know and train their employees with disabilities find that those employees are more loyal and dedicated, Grawi said.
According to Calley and Bernstein, there are 500,000 working-age Michiganders with disabilities who are unemployed, despite the fact that almost half of them have a college education or degree.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, federal laws define a disabled person as, “any person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; has a record of such impairment; or is regarded as having such an impairment.”
People with disabilities face unique challenges when seeking employment. Perhaps the biggest one is finding an employer willing to look past a person’s disability and evaluate the individual as a whole. Bernstein, who is himself blind and the first disabled member of the Michigan Supreme Court, understands this very well.
“Of the 65 law firms that I interviewed (for) that were coming to Northwestern from all across the country… I didn’t get a single call back – not a job, (not even) a call back,” Bernstein said, attributing his disability to the lack of interest from employers.
Calley said, “Sometimes accommodations scare (employers) away. But accommodations are typically very, very minor.”
Commenting about his job at the state Supreme Court, Bernstein said, unlike his colleagues who can refer to their computers and notes during meetings, he has to rely on his memory; he internalizes the cases by having his clerk read them to him repeatedly.
For the employers present, Calley made it clear that hiring and accommodating disabled people should not be a matter of pity. The financial benefits for the employer and employee should be evident.
“I am in no way, shape or form talking about charity,” Calley said.
He went on to recount the story of a Gordon Food Service employee who has autism – a disorder, which in his case, is accompanied by a strong aptitude for numbers. His job for GFS is essentially proofreading Excel spreadsheets with financial information; his attention to detail and ability to find inconsistencies have saved the company over $400,000.
Bernstein highlighted another, very unlikely, place where disabled people have been integrated: the military. Specifically, Israel’s Defense Forces. According to Bernstein, the Israeli intelligence community uses autistic soldiers to analyze satellite images and other military data because of their ability to pick up details that other soldiers simply can’t. Other branches use disabled people in non-combat support roles.
“Throughout history, unfortunately mankind has had a tendency to both segregate people and then to generalize what that group of people can and can’t do. And history has proven over and over again that that doesn’t make any sense,” Calley said.
“It is flat out wrong…We really need to be inclusive… Just like we wouldn’t assume anything about a person with a different race, we shouldn’t assume anything about a person with a disability, that they can’t go out there and perform, and be of value to their community.”
If individuals need additional support looking for employment, the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living is an excellent resource. Job Talk meets on 2nd and 4th Tuesdays of every month from 10-11:30 a.m. @ 3941 Research Drive, Ann Arbor. It’s support group for people to evaluate their skills and find appropriate jobs. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or Call (734) 971-0277.