South Carolina Vocational Rehabilitation Department

Helping people with disabilities to become and stay employed.
Helping businesses find and keep talent.

2019 Journalism Contest

2019 South Carolina Governor’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities Journalism Contest winning essay.

America's Workforce:
Empowering All, and All Will Win

by Sarah Porter
Columbia SC

I have not been there. I have not had a disability, and I may never be able to fully grasp the challenges a disability poses. But I do know how much having a job has enriched my life and, moreover, how much it has helped my employer. Every job is different, and every employee is different too, but that has only ever created a more productive workforce and society. In fact, a stable economy necessitates a diverse workforce. According to the Center for American Progress, a diverse workforce “drives economic growth,” “capture[s] a greater share of the consumer market,” creates a “more qualified workforce,” “fosters a more creative and innovative workforce,” and provides many other benefits (Kerby and Crosby). And a diverse workforce includes those with disabilities. The Center recognizes that when “businesses commit to meeting the needs of diverse communities as workers and consumers” (Kerby and Crosby), especially the community of individuals with disabilities, the economy flourishes.

Indeed, the empowerment of everyone is crucial, and individuals with disabilities must not be left unassisted. Jamie Nadeau, the Director of Employment for Opportunity Works, expounds on her organization’s mission of empowering those with disabilities: “In our daily operations, we are constantly positively working with people—those with developmental disabilities, mental health issues, cognitive developmental disabilities—helping them to discover their strengths” and then “providing the tools for them to attain a job in the community.” For these individuals, working fulfills them. Nadeau observes that the “amount of effort and dedication they have toward reaching their goals is just incredible,” and for many of them, it is all about their “contribution to society.” Nevertheless, there is definitely a stigma out there for those with disabilities. But it doesn’t have to be this way, and it shouldn’t be.

The stigma present in today’s society must be fought against, especially considering how productive individuals with disabilities can be if given the chance. Regrettably, an astonishingly high number of veterans commit suicide daily, many of whom have struggled with disabilities. The Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion reports that “[d]uring their service, some veterans may have acquired disabilities, whether visible or not, that can interfere with everyday activities, especially with respect to employment. America’s employers have an important role to play in ensuring their success in the workplace” (“Disabled Veterans”). Success must be fostered, and it undoubtedly is possible for these individuals. For example, disabled veteran Sheldon Cooke has instructed collegiate-level management courses for over ten years at Midlands Technical College in Columbia, South Carolina, and has also served as a project manager for Colonial Life. Despite his disability preventing him from achieving his previous ambition of becoming a federal law enforcement officer, he thoroughly loves teaching. When speaking of his pursuit of teaching, Cooke explains that both his parents were educators and that he was gifted with the ability to comfortably speak publicly. For Cooke, working in the school system “runs in the family,” and he experiences fulfillment through his job because he views it as an “opportunity to help students develop the skills that they need to reach their aspirations.” Cooke, named an adjunct professor of the year in 2017, is not only an example of a productive employee but is also an inspiration. While his disability prevented him from pursuing one job, he employed his strengths to pursue another—a job that has not only changed his life but also the lives of many, many students.

Undeniably, hiring people with disabilities is both the smart and proper thing to do. In her article “Hiring People With Disabilities Isn’t Just the Right Thing to Do—It’s Good for Business,” Elizabeth Picciuto emphasizes that 85 percent of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities do not have paying jobs. These statistics are sad, and they warrant change. Hence, companies like Opportunity Works that strive to empower all individuals, and schools like Midlands Technical College that hire capable individuals, including those with disabilities, are imperative.

Furthermore, a workforce that includes individuals with disabilities has an exceptionally low turnover rate. In Nadeau’s experience, “if you can hone in on one’s skills, you have a pretty stable employee who can potentially be better than someone else.” Thus, focusing on the strengths of individuals with disabilities may make them a more valuable asset than the average Joe, and Professor Sheldon Cooke confirms this. Focusing on the abilities a person does have is crucial for employers. Beth Ruffin, Diversity & Inclusion Consultant for Colonial Life, accentuates this, asserting that employers must identify the needs of individuals with disabilities and provide the required assistance. When this is done, there is no doubt why the turnover rates are incredibly low in businesses with diverse personnel.

Additionally, a diverse workforce increases the creativity of a business. Ruffin proves this when referencing a gentleman who became disabled and as a result “had to be innovative in how he adapts to life.” This man’s innovation became a valuable business resource as he could better cater products to the needs of individuals with disabilities (Ruffin). Employers must “really tap into” this competitive advantage to improve businesses. After all, as Ruffin passionately explains, “you want your business to represent what the community looks like. You want people to walk in the door and feel like, yes, this is a place where I can succeed! And if they don’t see someone who looks like them, it’s really hard for them to believe they could have a place there” (Ruffin). It is this representation of minorities in the workplace that can help empower all individuals to step up and tackle a job—a job that may honestly be better done by them rather than by anyone else. Indeed, “high-performance companies are 37 percent more likely than low-performance companies to hire people with [disabilities] for the straightforward reason that they are ‘good talent matches for open positions’” (Picciuto). These statistics are hopeful.

A difference is made with programs like Opportunity Works and people like Beth Ruffin. For Nadeau, her experience with disabled individuals in Opportunity Works has been “life-changing.” “It makes you appreciate every day,” she says. “These guys are so inspiring. They brighten your day and help keep you focused on what’s important” (Nadeau). And for Ruffin, her job has changed her perception of the world: “Now everywhere I go, I look at things through a more inclusive lens. It makes me see the world differently, and it makes me want to ensure that everyone is included.” Undoubtedly, minority groups like individuals with disabilities have an impact on those around them, and we should endeavor to include them more often and more openly in America’s workforce.

Because diversity and inclusion in the workplace are crucial for the success of employees, employers, the economy, and the community as a whole, we must empower can of America’s workforce. I love my job. For me, it is a refreshing change of pace from my high school schedule. But more than that, working fulfills me as I strive to be a productive member of society. There is no reason for others, especially those with disabilities, to not feel this same way. They should have the opportunity to have their strengths identified and used for the benefit of not only themselves but also society; all can win.


Works Cited

Cooke, Sheldon. Personal Interview. 28 Jan. 2019.

“Disabled Veterans.” Employer Assistance and Resource Network. www.askearn.org/topics/recruitment-hiring/disabled-veterans/. Accessed 28 Jan. 2019.

Kerby, Sophia and Crosby Burns. “The Top 10 Economic Facts of Diversity in the Workplace.” Center for American Progress, 12 July 2012, www.americanprogress.org/issues/economy/news/2012/07/12/11900/the-top-10-economic-facts-of-diversity-in-the-workplace/.

Nadeau, Jamie. Telephone Interview. 24 Jan. 2019.

Picciuto, Elizabeth. “Hiring People With Disabilities Isn't Just the Right Thing to Do—It's Good for Business.” The Daily Beast, 27 Oct. 2014, www.thedailybeast.com/hiring-people-with-disabilities-isnt-just-the-right-thing-to-doits-good-for-business?ref=scroll.

Ruffin, Beth. Telephone Interview. 28 Jan. 2019.