2018 Journalism Contest
2018 South Carolina Governor’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities Journalism Contest winning essay.
Inclusion Drives Innovation:
Create a Movement
by Dawson Hatfield
Laurence Manning Academy, Manning SC
Pause for a moment and think about the power of an avalanche. An avalanche is tremendously powerful, yet is triggered by the slightest shift or movement and is difficult to stop. South Carolina’s workforce is in need of an avalanche of its own. Our workforce needs an avalanche of support for the movement towards inclusion in the workplace. This avalanche, however, cannot just start on its own. Just as an avalanche in nature needs a small shift in the movement of rocks, snow, or ice, our workforce needs a shift in thinking. It will require employers to shift their thinking to one which says that people with disabilities have valuable skills to share in the workplace. Once the avalanche of support starts, I believe it will not be stopped as employers begin to see that inclusion actually drives innovation and benefits everyone involved. As individuals, we certainly all have unique talents and skills that benefit us in the workplace, but individuals with disabilities have the potential to infuse our world with more innovative products and innovative solutions to problems that might otherwise go unnoticed by others.
Personally, I grew up watching my mother, who is a special education teacher at the high school level, work with students with disabilities and assist them in making plans for their transition to the workplace. Each year, she tells her students about the success of Richie Parker, a Beaufort, South Carolina native who was born with a rare birth defect. I had the honor of conducting a phone interview with Parker where he openly shared how his physical disability led him to become innovative at a very young age. According to Parker, he was born with bilateral amelia, a non-genetic birth defect which causes difficulty in the formation of limbs. While Parker could have let his physical impairment prevent him from doing fun “kid activities” like riding a bike, he worked with his father at a young age to design a bicycle that he could steer without arms by installing a chin bar to steer. When Parker outgrew his bicycle and wanted to move on to driving a car, he and his father worked to modify a car with an innovative plate installed next to the gas pedal which allowed Parker to steer the vehicle. When I asked Parker if he always had a knack for innovation, he stated, “I would say my dad deserves a lot of credit. I think he was always there to push and be innovative and make sure that if I wanted to do something that there was a way that I could do it. He did a good job and it ended up being something that I kind of took over on my own…..wanting to find ways to do things. I think sometimes your circumstances kind of force innovation and I think that was kind of my case more than anything….the need to adapt.” This knack for innovation led Parker to attend Clemson University where he received a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering and a master’s degree in Entrepreneurship. While pursuing his bachelor’s degree, he participated in an internship with Hendrick Motorsports that was actually the subject of an ESPN short video. The internship with Hendrick turned into a full time position where Parker became widely respected for the innovations he brought to vehicle engineering. During my interview with Parker, I asked if he felt that having a physical impairment led him to become a better engineer. He thought for a moment, paused, and stated, “I think so…without a doubt….with my disability growing up it forced me to often look at the third and fourth option and it forced me to not stop on a project if it didn’t work the first time. It might take ten to twenty times for me to do something. I am less likely to quit than some of my coworkers, so I think that, for sure, my disability is something that has helped me in my career.” Parker ended our interview by stating that one of his favorite quotes is by Maya Angelou, who once said, “You may not control all of the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” Parker is employed in his dream job and is truly living a life that has not been reduced simply because of his physical disability. Clearly, Hendrick Motorsports is an employer who recognizes the talents of all individuals and is a role model for other employers in creating a movement towards inclusion in the workforce.
South Carolina’s Avalanche
According to a February 28, 2017 article in Fortune Magazine, South Carolina ranks 46th in the employment rate for workers with disabilities. This dismal number demonstrates that South Carolina is in need of some sort of shift in thinking to create an avalanche of support towards inclusion in the workforce. “People with disabilities deserve the opportunity to earn an income and achieve independence, just like anyone else.” (Fortune Magazine) It is important to remember, however, that it is not just the individuals that lose out when doors are shut for those with a disability, but also the employers that miss opportunities. Employers lose the opportunity to tap into the talents of the “Richie Parkers” of the world when they fail to build an inclusive workforce made up of a diverse population with special needs and talents that are shared with others as product lines are enhanced and productivity streamlined through innovative ideas. According to its website, the S.C. Vocational Rehabilitation Department (SCVRD) “prepares and assists eligible South Carolinians with disabilities to achieve and maintain competitive employment” and works with employers to partner them with “qualified pre-screened candidates.” Tonya Barkley, an assistant with the Sumter branch of SCVRD, stated that her office has a steady stream of clients seeking support and that employers in the county are receptive to hiring. While the efforts of local branch offices are a start, the statistics show that South Carolina is in dire need of other employers to get moving and become a part of our avalanche of support for inclusion.
At the start of this year, I suffered a traumatic brain injury from an accident that fractured my skull and caused a brain bleed. This injury could have resulted in my having an impairment in my motor abilities, speech, or cognition. As a typical 18 year old senior in high school, involved in athletics and various clubs, it truly had never occurred to me that with one accident I could join the ranks of South Carolinians with disabilities. After all, teenagers are invincible, right? I learned that night that no one is invincible and that we are all just one accident away from finding ourselves in need of a supportive environment towards the inclusion of individuals with special needs. As citizens, do we really want to wait to become a supporter of the movement towards inclusion until the need becomes our own? Would it not be a far greater legacy to have joined the movement towards educating people about the need for a movement BEFORE the need becomes our own? Personally, I refuse to wait any longer. I pledge to do my part, but as I stated before, it will take an avalanche of support to make true change. I challenge you to do your part by asking business owners in your community what they are doing to foster inclusion in the workplace. I challenge you to support employers who recognize that inclusion drives innovation, as evidenced by individuals such as Richie Parker, by frequenting those business establishments and referring others as well. I challenge you to “make a move” and start the avalanche in your community. I hope we can make a change…...after all, the second motto on our South Carolina State Seal is “Dum Spiro Spero” which is Latin for “While I breathe, I hope.” I have hope for inclusion....how about you?
Barkley, Tonya. South Carolina Vocational Rehabilitation Department, Sumter, SC. Personal Interview. January 22, 2018.
Fortune Magazine. http://fortune.com/2017/02/28/disability-employment-rank/
Parker, Richie. Telephone Interview. January 24, 2018.
South Carolina Vocational Rehabilitation Department. https://scvrd.net/