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VIA’s Statler Center Trains People for Heroic Work

You never know where you might find a hero – perhaps a person who provides the right help in hard times.

For thousands of people who called for help last year to 211 in Western New York, the heroes on other end of the line were individuals who had trained at the National Statler Center. The National Statler Center is the educational and employment arm of VIA, formerly Olmsted Center for Sight, a Johnson Scholarship Foundation grantee partner.

The stories they heard covered every difficulty imaginable, but amplified by the pandemic – a man needing rent assistance as a landlord threatened eviction, a 22-year-old pregnant woman out of work and out of money, a senior whose water heater quit working, a deaf woman trying to leave an abusive spouse.

211WNY has been a program of VIA for about a decade. About half to three quarters of the information specialists answering the phones are blind or visually impaired. Last year during the pandemic, call volume to 211WNY almost doubled to nearly 82,000, said Renee DiFlavio, Sr. Vice President, Development of VIA. Providing the information that callers need to link them to services is a special skill executed with assistive technology and trained listening skills.

“Certainly if you’re visually impaired, there are many jobs you can do, but call center work is a great job because of the tele-technology,” DiFlavio said. “What’s also interesting is that it might be a model eventually for people to hire people who are blind or visually impaired to work those jobs.”

a woman seated at a computer

Sharell B., a Statler Center graduate, working at the 211WNY Call Center.

Many of the people on the end of the phone lines assisting callers learned their skills at the National Statler Center. The center offers programs for training in several fields, including customer service, hospitality, food prep, software applications, and communications.

“All of the work stations have adaptive technology with a dual-input headset,” said Ray Zylinski, Assistive Technology Instructor at VIA. “You’d hear the caller in one ear, and the computer audio in your other ear. It’s not something everybody can do. You’re essentially absorbing information from two different audio sources at once.”

People who work for 211WNY become adept at entering key words related to a caller’s issue to find human service agencies that could provide the caller with assistance.

More than 100 people have gone through the technology program at VIA’s Statler Center. While some work for 211WNY, others are in jobs with companies throughout the area, the result of the placement specialists at VIA, Zylinski said.

“Statistics show that a very high percent of individuals with low vision who can find employment don’t leave that job, so the attrition rate is significantly low,” Zylinski said. “That hits employers in their wallet, and then they tend to listen.”

That ability to listen is what made heroes of VIA’s assistive technology and referral specialists when so many people were in need of help.


Angie Francalancia is a communications specialist with Johnson Scholarship Foundation

Determination Overcomes a Disrupted Journey

Jamieson Holloway, now 23, has been pursuing his passion for cooking since he was a student at Atlanta’s D.M. Therrell High School, where he took culinary classes and enrolled in the Bridges from School to Work program (Bridges). Bridges has worked with Atlanta Public Schools since 1996 to help young adults with disabilities prepare for, connect to, and succeed in good jobs. Bridges arranged for Jamieson to work part-time for two consecutive seasons at Turner Field Stadium, where he excelled at frying chicken tenders, French fries, and other stadium fare for hungry Atlanta Braves fans during the baseball season.

After high school, he continued to pursue his goal of becoming a chef, taking culinary courses at Atlanta Technical College. And like many chefs before him, Jamieson’s culinary career began in earnest through washing dishes. With help from Bridges, he got a dishwasher job at the Atlanta Hilton downtown in fall 2016, progressing from there to food prep and breakfast cook, and working through spring of 2020 until the pandemic hit. Since then, he’s been on furlough, but he landed full-time work as a line cook at a local senior living community, a job he found on his own. Jamieson’s continued employment and income have been essential for his family during the pandemic.

Jamieson hopes to return to the Hilton when the travel and tourism industry begins to rebound. He has also developed his own blend of barbeque sauce that he hopes one day to market and distribute as a successful entrepreneur.

For his hard work and determination, Jamieson was selected as the 2020 Stephen G. Marriott Youth Achievement Honoree. He shares his story in the video below:


Allen Brown is the Director of Grants and Project Development for Bridges from School to Work. He has worked with Bridges for 19 years.

An Interview with I. King Jordan – Deaf President Now, the ADA, and the future for Disability Rights

We talked recently with I. King Jordan Jr., whose story of advocating for the rights of individuals with disabilities spans more than 30 years and traverses the halls of Gallaudet University, the nation’s leading university for the education of students who are deaf and hard of hearing.  Jordan, a consultant on disability programs for Johnson Scholarship Foundation, shares some of his history, including his memories of the historic year when he became Gallaudet’s first deaf president. We also talked about advancements and continuing challenges for the deaf and others 30 years after the adoption of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

AF: Tell me about the technology that makes our call possible.

KJ:  It’s called video relay service interpreting (VRS).  The simple explanation is when I dial your number, instead of the phone calling you, it calls the interpreter, and interpreter then calls you. I talk directly to you and you hear me. When you talk, the interpreter signs what you say, and I see her. And it’s just the most wonderful technology going. It’s just terrific. I never used a phone from 1965 until about 15 years ago (2005). I would sometimes have to go ask my neighbor to make a phone call for me. Now I can make phone calls from pretty much anywhere.

AF: I figured technology plays a big part in advancements for people who are deaf.

KJ: It’s a huge part. Its simple things…well simple now, but things like captions on TV. For the longest time, there were no captions on TV. In my family, we have a joke that we watched Love Boat and Fantasy Island every Sunday. They were terrible shows, but we watched because they were captioned.

Not all captioning is good. In fact, some is borderline atrocious. You can test it yourself. Turn on your television; turn on a news show, like Chris Matthews. Turn on captions but with no sound and tell me how much you can understand. Speech recognition captioning is getting better and better, and in time, I’m hoping it will improve.

AF: What percent of deaf people can speak as you do?

KJ: It’s not a large percentage. People like me are called deafened. There are two distinct categories – people who are born deaf and people who become deaf later. The later you become deaf, the more you are acculturated into hearing culture. My primary language is English. I can sign American Sign Language and understand ASL. But when I make a VRS call, I ask the interpreter to interpret in English so I understand exactly what you’re saying. In some deaf circles, it’s frowned on to speak.

When I first became president of Gallaudet, I was discouraged to speak in public. But I have very strongly taken the position that there are many ways to be deaf and many ways to communicate. All of them should be respected, and a person’s choice should be respected.

AF: Before preparing for this interview, I had never heard the term, Deaf Culture. I found it interesting that there are people who would like to see it considered a difference, not a disability.

KJ: Deafness is a difference, and while people who are deaf can’t hear, we can pretty much do anything else. One thing that bothers deaf people and bothers me is the paternalism or condescending that happens. Don’t be sorry for me. Just look at me when you speak and try to think of what I can do, not what I can’t do.

AF: You’re best known at Gallaudet’s first deaf president. Tell me about what happened at Gallaudet that year.

I. King Jordan in 1988

KJ: Oh yeah. It was a remarkable time. When the position was announced, people started to contact me to encourage me to think about applying. Everybody in my family was 100 percent supportive. So I was a very serious candidate. (I prepared like) it was graduate school for me. I read tons of materials, then brought together a group of friends to help me prepare for my interviews. I don’t know how many applicants there were originally, maybe 100; then they narrowed down to 12. It was announced that 6 were deaf and 6 were hearing.

The students started to rally for the next president being a deaf person. (It came to be called the Deaf President Now (DPN) movement.) Then there were 6 semi-finalists; 3 hearing and 3 deaf. All six were brought in for interviews. Then it was narrowed to 3. Of the 3, two were deaf and one was hearing. The hearing candidate was vice chancellor at UNC Greensboro. She was a very experienced higher education administrator; much more experience than I; but she didn’t have any experience with deaf people. I believe her undergraduate degree was in nursing; at one point people thought she would come with the medical view of deafness not the cultural view.

The three of us met with the board. I thought I did really well. I told my wife I thought I had a good chance. The next day, I got a call from the deaf man who was chair of the search committee. He gave me a short, maybe two sentence message:  The board has decided to select someone else. Thank you for your candidacy.

AF: So that’s what launched the protests?

KJ: I was home, but on campus, the students and faculty were ready to celebrate. The press release the University handed out said, “GU selects first female president.” They had selected the only hearing candidate, Dr. Elisabeth Zinser, vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. You can imagine that press release didn’t set well with those hundreds of people gathered on campus.

One great visual from that day of protests is a police officer who was trained to work with demonstrations. First thing he does is pull out a bull horn. Of course everybody’s deaf. And people who are not deaf, they won’t interpret for him.

At that point, the group decided to march through the city streets to the Mayflower Hotel where the Board of Trustees was staying. Once they (police) saw they couldn’t control the march, they basically provided a police escort. They had a car in front to protect the marchers and a car behind. At the hotel, the chairman of the board (of trustees) agreed to see a few of the people who had marched. One came out of the meeting and reported (that the Board of Trustees chair said) “Deaf people are not ready to function in the hearing world.”

That was Sunday, March 6, 1988. That really started the protests. Students, staff, alumni went back to the campus. They chained all the gates closed. They even hotwired a school bus and drove it across the entrance and flattened its tires.

The protest went on for basically a week.

I’ll give you a couple highlights:

On Wednesday I got a phone call from the provost telling me that the president-elect (Dr. Zinser) was in town and that she wanted to meet with the leaders of the protest. The provost wanted me to put her together with the leaders. She wanted to tell them what she would do as president. I went onto campus.

The group agreed, but said, “We will allow her to meet with the four student leaders, but she can’t come on campus. We’ll rent a hotel room. Then you and Dr. Zinser can come.” Then a Gallaudet University driver came and took me and Dr. Zinser to the hotel. Actually, it was a small motel room. So there was a bed and one chair, four student leaders, me, Dr. Zinser and an interpreter. The students were polite. They said, “We don’t have anything against you; we don’t dislike you, but we will never allow you to become the president of Gallaudet. If you think the four of us could make that happen you’re mistaken.” We met for maybe less than an hour.  They basically said, “Dr. Zinser, we’re talking in circles now. We’re done, period.” In American Sign Language, that period – that’s a very emphatic sign. It was more like an exclamation point than a period.

AF: What was the turning point?

KJ: The turning point may have been ABC’s Nightline. The host, Ted Koppel, welcomed and interviewed the president of the student governing association, Greg Hlibok who was one of the student leaders, and the president-elect, Dr. Elisabeth Zinser, and Marlee Matlin, a deaf actor. Don’t ask me why they had Marlee Matlin! Perhaps because she was a famous deaf person. There was one great line during the show when the host said something like, ‘This is very confusing. We have a deaf man, and his interpreter who is voicing for him is a woman. We have a deaf woman, and the interpreter who is voicing for her is a man.” It was actually kind of funny! Greg just won the night. He was articulate, thoughtful. That was Thursday night.

On Friday morning, Dr. Zinser announced her resignation. It was clear she would never be welcome on campus. So the board came back to Washington DC. The short of it is they offered it to me. I actually had to think about it because I knew there would be enemies on the board. How can a president succeed if he doesn’t have the full support on the board? The only way I would accept was if it was made clear that the board vote to appoint me was unanimous and that I would have their full support. That was Sunday, March 13.

We then had an impromptu press conference. I made a statement. When that was over, we all went back to campus.

There was a club on campus called the Rathskeller. Everybody was there. The juke box was on and jacked up to max volume so everyone could feel the vibration. Everybody was partying. You could see representatives from the press celebrating. They were 100 percent on the side of the students.

Bridgetta Bourne-Firl, who had participated in the 1988 Deaf President Now movement, greets I. King Jordan during a visit to Gallaudet University in 2017.

I’d like to say something about the Board of Trustees. Some members of the board were medical doctors. They understood deafness from a medical point. The board conducted its business by voice and sound. They were nearly all hearing people.

I often say it wasn’t really a protest. It was a revolution. One of the things that happened very much like in a revolution was the board was radically changed and soon had a majority of deaf members. For my entire presidency there were interpreters, but they were there for the hearing people.

I am able to sit in a conversation with deaf people in which only ASL is used. When I’m in that group, my voice stops. Then I’m signing more like a deaf person but because I learned sign in my 20s, I’ll never be fully fluent (as deaf people who learned ASL as young children)

AF: I think you were uniquely suited because of your ability to communicate in both ASL and spoken English.

KJ: It’s more than just two languages. It’s an effort I made for all 19 years to try really hard to build bridges. Here’s one example:  There’s an organization called the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. They are very strong supporters of spoken language and listening skills. When I communicate in public, I use what is called ‘simultaneous communication.’ That means that I speak and map signs onto my spoken English. When I first became president there were a couple vacancies on the board that needed to be filled by deaf people. I persuaded the board to elect the sitting president of the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf. So, they agreed and selected him. I got a lot of flak for that. There’s a group of people called Strong Deaf who were very acculturated in the Deaf Culture who wanted to keep it small and protect it. I wanted to widen it.

I think everyone realized that there was now a deaf president, and while I may not have been everybody’s first choice, and many would have preferred someone who was born deaf and grew up deaf, I was strong about my deafness and accepting of my deafness. Pretty much everyone wanted to support me.

Perhaps the most important result was the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA had been sitting in committees in Congress. And DPN sort of kick-started the ADA. Both sponsors of the ADA – Tom Harkin (D., Iowa), and Anthony Coelho (D., Calif) – the sponsors both said without DPN the ADA probably never would have happened.

AF: Let’s talk about the ADA. Where have we gone and what needs to happen next?

KJ: That’s a painful thing for me because the employment of people who are disabled is just as bad today as when the ADA was passed. The recognition that people with disabilities have strong abilities is not in people’s minds. The problem is everyone is emphasizing the dis in disability. Why can’t you focus on the ability, not the dis! When they think about deaf people, they think about the fact that you can’t hear, not what you can do.

I guess the whole issue of attitude still hasn’t changed enough. We’re always going be second-class citizens. In many respects I’m not “equal to.” I’m “better than.” I’ll settle for “equal to.”

AF: Will advances in technology help?

KJ: It will help. There are ways that technology can be used in communication – obviously improved ways for communication. Statistically, there’s all kinds of evidence that disabled employees make good employees. Often times their attendance and work records are better, and still people are hesitant to hire them – still so many people who can’t get over that mental barrier.  They don’t think that a person will bring the skills that they need.

AF: What about the cost of technology? Would it be a problem for a deaf person born into a lower income family?

One of the things the ADA stipulates is that employers and the public sector must make reasonable accommodations. If you hire someone who is deaf, you might need to hire an interpreter or purchase video relay equipment. National associations have shown that the cost of accommodations is small. You make this reasonable accommodation, and it often ends up benefiting more than the people who are disabled.

One example is something we mentioned earlier, captions. When the captions are good, a person learning English as a second language can listen and read at the same time. Another example where captions really help is in sports bars. You can’t possibly have the sound on at all because they’d be overlapping each other. With captions, of course everyone benefits.

Another example is curb cuts. They’re required by law now so people who use wheelchairs can navigate sidewalks. But much more frequently they’re used by people pushing baby carriages or on bicycles or skate boards.

AF: What was Gallaudet like right after DPN in your first years? 

KJ: For the first couple years we were really at an enrollment maximum of 2,400 or 2,500. We really couldn’t fit any more. I understand the numbers are going down now. For quite some time, it was really high. For me, first day of class and day of commencement are highlights. I know so many who have gone on to different careers. That makes me feel really good.

AF: Tell me about changes you made once you were president

KJ: When I earned my Ph. D. in 1973, the number of people who were deaf who had Ph. Ds. was just a handful. I mean it was really, really small. I realized it’s difficult for deaf people to go to graduate school and work as graduate assistants or research assistants because of issues with interpreters. I set up a program where students who were attending Ph. D. programs at other universities could apply and receive from Gallaudet a stipend that was much the same as a stipend would be for a teaching assistant at that university. I established the program and called it Presidential Scholars. Several people who participated in the program have completed their Ph. Ds. That was one I was really, really proud of.

AF: Tell me about your graduate school experience at the University of Tennessee. Wasn’t that your first experience away from the deaf community?

KJ:  It was a big challenge. Back then (fall of 1969) there were not really a lot of professional interpreters. I was thrust into a situation where I just made do – I did the best I could without interpreters. Part of the down side of speaking well is that when people hear me speak, they assume, “He must be able to hear something.” I’m not really good at lip reading, and I couldn’t count on teachers facing the class.

So I came up with my own solution. I would ask students in the class if they would be willing to give me a copy of their notes. I gave them notebooks with carbon paper. At first it was rather awkward, but people soon realized they took better notes. And I always asked 3 people to do it. So at the end of each class I had three copies of notes. As it turned out after the year, we would have study groups, and the study groups used my notes. It worked out OK!

It’s a little ironic because the University of Tennessee has a department of deaf education where they prepare students to become teachers of the deaf. But I was in the School of Arts and Sciences, and there was no help from the Department of Education. I finished in 4 years ‒ from B.A. to M.A. and Ph. D.

King Jordan visits with staff at the Philadelphia campus of Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech, a Johnson Scholarship Foundation grantee partner, in 2018.

AF: Let’s go back to the ADA. Where do we need to go from here?

KJ: How we do it, I wish I had a good answer. But as far as where ‒ we need to reach a place where people who are disabled and seeking work have an opportunity to be employed. We’re not there. Interesting, one of the Johnson Scholarship Foundation grantees is Bridges from School to Work. Their success is absolutely amazing. They’re able to pair an individual student with an individual employer representative and the employer. The employer representative who works for Bridges, he or she continues to follow the employee and works with the employee. That success rate is unbelievable. About 80 percent get jobs. There’s nothing like that anywhere else. But it’s expensive. So it’s not a model that is easy to replicate or take to scale. But there are organizations that are doing wonderful things.

I believe that if more of the people in the C-suite offices understand the value, then more and more people (with disabilities) will be hired. One of the sayings I’m very proud of is that “Deaf people can do anything except hear.”

Remember the press conference I mentioned? I was named president on Sunday March 13, and on Monday, there was a press conference. The university auditorium was packed with reporters. It was standing-room only. At first I was nervous, but they asked me easy questions. In retrospect, I’m sure they were deliberately soft questions. I called them puffballs, easy questions. I was standing behind a podium with probably more than 15 microphones attached to it. Then at the very end, a local TV reporter said something like, “Dr. Jordan, all of this is really good and all the students clearly value that. But really, after they graduate what kind of jobs can they do?”

Without even thinking about it, I said, “What kind of a question is that! Deaf people can do anything except hear.”


Angie Francalancia is a communications specialist for Johnson Scholarship Foundation.

Keeping the Doors Open During COVID-19: Lessons Learned From an Employer of People with Disabilities

When COVID-19 hit, every business, organization, manufacturer and service provider had to completely reevaluate how it operated (if it could operate at all) and make predictions about an unknown future. As a nonprofit manufacturer that employs hundreds of people with disabilities across northern Minnesota and the Twin Cities, MDI has had some unique challenges to address. Our business supporting at least 28 of our customers, including the United States Postal Service, was deemed essential in March, which meant we could still operate our four facilities. However, many of our employees with disabilities face higher COVID-19 risk factors, which meant every precaution had to be taken. But one thing that remained steadfast was the foundational value of our business: putting employees and customers first.

Our model of providing meaningful employment empowered us to act swiftly, communicate effectively and enact a COVID-19 preparedness plan for our employees in a matter of days. With employee support staff already in place and strong communications between employees, floor managers and administrative staff, we were able to create individualized plans based on each employee’s health and comfort level, and determine what was needed to ensure the safety of MDI employees coming to work each day.

We immediately socially distanced our workstations and made work-from-home arrangements for employees who are able. We invested in more disinfecting products, including a sanitizing machine to quickly and fully clean our facilities. We provided face masks, adjusted shift schedules to minimize congestion and enacted policies to limit who can enter our facilities beyond employees. Complying with the state’s face mask mandate required minimal adjustments to our preparedness plan. Most of all, our employees are taking this virus, protecting themselves, families and coworkers seriously.

To date, we have not had a case of COVID-19 at any of our facilities. During the pandemic, 140 of our employees went on furlough due to health risk concerns and some decline in business. Today only 36 people remain furloughed and we are bringing back more of our team members each week.

This July marked the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act – a monumental piece of legislation that protects people with disabilities from discrimination. It was a first step in building an inclusive environment for people with disabilities. At MDI, our values take it further by prioritizing our employees and understanding their abilities, rather than focusing on what they cannot do. This enduring belief positioned us to be flexible, innovative and responsive during a worldwide crisis. Our philosophy that well-supported employees result in high-quality products and satisfied customers is proving to be more relevant now more than ever.

We continue to see a bright future for MDI and its employees, especially on the Iron Range. We intend to hire 80 full-time employees in this region over the next 10 years by investing $2.7 million in a polypropylene extruder for our Grand Rapids facility. This tool, which would expand our offerings, requires operators and creates plastic sheets that become boxes, totes and trays for commercial businesses.

MDI is committed to impacting 2,500 lives by 2026 through employment opportunities and services for people with disabilities. And as our economy slowly and measuredly begins to plan for a post-vaccine future, our neighbors and community members can count on MDI to provide the independence, confidence and purpose that employment brings for people with and without disabilities.

MDI is a grantee partner of the Johnson Scholarship Foundation.

Career Development Program Helps Students ‘Do More, Be More, Achieve More’

At The Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind (FSDB) our vision is to provide students the opportunities to Do More, Be More, and Achieve More as they prepare for a lifetime of success. Career Development and Career and Technical Programs (CTE) enable our students with deaf/hard of hearing or blind/visually impaired to compete in the world of work. FSDB offers students comprehensive programming to prepare them for college and careers. Students can explore potential careers and obtain skills within those career paths such as Construction Technologies, Culinary Arts, Digital Media, Horticulture Science and Services, Promotional Enterprises, and other exploratory courses. In addition, students can participate in post- secondary CTE programs at local colleges.

Instructor and student working on a t-shirt design

However, even with these courses available, students who are deaf/hard of hearing or blind/visually impaired still have obstacles to overcome before entering the workforce. At FSDB, we are grateful to have the Johnson Scholarship Foundation that graciously supports the work we do to give our students the readiness career skills they need to be successful and contributing citizens. Our CTE programs prepare students to learn technical skills and earn industry certifications by utilizing rigorous curriculum rooted in critical instruction, professionalism, and employable skills.

As our motto at FSDB states, students…

“Do More.” By guiding them through the process of advocating for themselves and taking initiative, students who are deaf/hard of hearing or blind/visually impaired are taught to embrace their passions and abilities. This is supported by our Job Coaches who give our students the personal guidance specific to the tasks they perform on the job. Our community partners and employers can count on the Job Coaches to assist the students to learn the hands on tasks while continuously providing guidance and feedback to students on how they can improve their work and effectiveness in the workplace. This enables students to become valuable employees for life.

Instructor and two students working in a garden nursery

“Be More.” In the Career Development office, students can apply for on campus work through our After School Work Program. Students have over 40 available paid positions on campus. They are guided through the job search, application and interview process — just like in the real world. Students look for job postings through various communications on campus, obtain an application, complete it, and wait for the email for an interview. By going through the interview and receiving feedback this entire process improves their job searching skills.

“Achieve More.” Students are asked to go above and beyond when preparing for the work placement programs at FSDB. Students have opportunities to work on and off campus to gain hands-on real world experience and put the skills they have obtained to the test. These experiences enable our students to further develop knowledge and skills to select career options, access community resources, and apply work-related behaviors through guided practice in school and community work settings. Some students are able to obtain community work placement as paid employment.

Instructor and two students working in a wood shop

Entering the job market can be a stressful time for anyone. Often, deaf/hard of hearing or blind/visually impaired have more to overcome than the average person with the same skill set. Our students enter the workforce with career skills, preparation and practice — all of which build confidence and resilience. This prepares them to overcome the obstacles placed before them. As this is National Disability Employment Awareness month, FSDB is grateful to have business partners that understand our students’ abilities and potential. We ask them to share their employee success stories with other employers to spread the awareness. We desire for our students to have positive employment opportunities in the community through the FSDB K-12 work placement program. This is just one way in which employers will be able to perceive all people as potential employees. Through personal experiences, they recognize there is a greater population of skilled and ready-to-work individuals with the ability to become successful employees.

Leonora Hughes is Executive Director of Career Development for the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind. She works in the Career Development office overseeing Career and Technical Programs as well as instruction, workforce training, campus and community internships, paid employment for students and developing industry partnerships with community stakeholders.

When Discussing Diversity and Inclusion, Include People with Disabilities

This item originally appeared on the website of Minnesota Diversified Industries.

Minnesota has come a long way when it comes to diversity and inclusion in the workplace. We’ve learned that our differences are assets, and diversity of thought, experience and identity translates into meaningful work, success and growth, no matter the industry. Companies and their leaders have made commitments to diversity and inclusion, setting goals and benchmarks for success – but most of those commitments are missing a huge piece of the puzzle.

People with disabilities represent an untapped workforce that is continually left out of the diversity and inclusion conversation in the business community, and it shows. While Minnesota faces a deepening workforce shortage, individuals with disabilities are 2.6 times more likely to be unemployed than the general population among people ages 18-64, according to a 2017 report from the Minnesota State Demographic Center.

MDI employees work in a sterile room to package items such as medical supplies.
MDI employees work in a sterile room to package items such as medical supplies.

At MDI, we operate on a social-enterprise model, successfully hiring and training people with disabilities who make up nearly 45 percent of our 450 employees. Our operations in plastics manufacturing and assembly services are second to none, providing high-quality and efficient services to everyone from food distributors to medical device companies to the U.S. Postal Service, FedEx, UPS and Amazon. People with disabilities bring unique skills and talents to the table that make our organization great, and it doesn’t take much to create an inclusive environment for them. Support, limited accommodations and focusing on their abilities – instead of disabilities – are the key ingredients to creating an inclusive and productive culture for people with disabilities.

Businesses cannot be truly diverse if people with disabilities are continuingly ignored on leadership agendas and in diversity, equity and inclusion statements. In honor of October’s National Disability Employment Awareness month, we are calling on all of Minnesota’s incredible organizations, both large and small, to reexamine or rewrite their diversity and inclusion statements to intentionally include people with disabilities.

We know that our differences make us stronger – but it takes inclusion to make them matter. Unified work brings us one step closer to realizing it.

Peter McDermott is president and CEO of Minnesota Diversified Industries, Inc., a not for profit social enterprise serving people with disabilities by offering inclusive employment opportunities and services.