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Front Page - Friday, July 21, 2017

‘Watch me.” Challenged workers up to task

“It’s a journey ... actually, it’s fun!” says Martin Arney, above, of his 21-year career at Habitat International. - Photographs by Alex McMahan

Martin Arney’s doctor predicted the 10-year-old would never do “normal” things and that he’d spend his life in a wheelchair.

Arney’s precocious response: “Watch me.”

Despite the effects of his cerebral palsy and severe arthritis, Arney has worked at Habitat International, a golf putting green manufacturer that employees mostly staff members have disabilities, for more than two decades.

“I’d rate him as one of the best employees we’ve ever had, or anyone could have. He gets more determined every day. There is not a ‘no’ in his vocabulary,” says company owner David Morris, his long-time employee always finds a way to get to work, even on snow days.

“Habitat gave me an opportunity to prove to the world that I can do something besides sit at home and draw a [disability] check,” says Arney, now 41. “I wanted to take every advantage I could because it’s a gift to work.”

The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, which guarantees equal opportunity in employment, public accommodation and other areas, has enabled the 56 million Americans – one in five people – with physical and mental challenges to be more included and productive.

But experts in the field agree there is still a long way to go. Labor force data shows that fewer than one in five working-age people with disabilities are employed, partly because business owners fear that hiring them will impede production and cost too much money.

Yet, studies conducted by the National Organization on Disability, which pushes for hiring equality under the direction of NOD chairman and former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, who has a severe hearing loss from his Army service in the Vietnam War, indicate that most accommodations cost nothing.

Dr. Gail Dawson, associate professor of management at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, incorporates the subject of disability hiring into two of her classes, one on human resources and the other, managing diversity in organizations. She is adamant that the advantages of hiring people with disabilities far outweigh any minor logistical adjustments employers might make to accommodate them.

“They have skills and abilities that are useful in organizations, but they’re often overlooked,” Dawson explains. “However, most of them really would like to be able to earn a living for themselves and to feel valuable. They tend to be very grateful, very loyal to the company. They tend not to change jobs very often because it is so difficult for people with disabilities to find a job.”

She cites the example of a “very good” business student in a wheelchair who, since graduation, has had great difficulty finding a job of any kind.

“He had done some things with a summer camp and was a great counselor,” Dawson points out. “But when it came to other positions, they were not even willing to look at him.”

Morris routinely sees this hesitation in other managers, human resources directors and business owners, both locally and nationally, who come to him for advice, concerned that hiring people with disabilities might be a bad idea.

The biggest downside, he says, noting that his own workers are more productive than their able-bodied counterparts, not less, is the employer’s own fear.

“One of the biggest things is they’ve got to change their paradigms, take a little more time and see how much it pays off,” Morris adds.

“If it’s done as a charity thing, then give your money to United Way. But if you really think it’s going to work, and your other employees see that you don’t look at it as a charity, and you expect the most of these people, then they’ll buy into it and be part of it and it will work.”

Morris admits that, just like with other new hires, a person with a disability might disappoint. He recently spent a great deal of time trying to incorporate a blind woman from a local disability agency into his factory and modify jigs to help her process the putting greens.

The reason she didn’t work out, Morris says, is because she wasn’t motivated, not because she can’t see.

Still, it mostly pays off.

Just before Father’s Day last year, when Amazon increased its usual orders of Habitat golf putting greens by 38 percent – with one week’s notice – Morris’ employees worked overtime to meet the demand.

“They all said, ‘We’ll get you out of trouble,’” Morris recalls. “Every one of them showed up.”

After all these years, Morris is still puzzled by the unwillingness of business owners to give workers like his a chance.

“I’m amazed at how deaf people, for instance, can’t get jobs in an environment where their hearing is not that important,” he says.

“I don’t know sign language. I smile at them. I show them [how to do things]. They don’t talk back. They don’t get into gossip. They could be the best employees anyone has.”

Employers are often even more wary of “invisible” disabilities such as cognitive challenges, autism or mental illness, Dawson adds. “A lot of times, if people can see the disability, they might be a little bit more comfortable with it. But with the hidden disabilities, people are a bit more afraid because they don’t even know how those work.”

Even so, such employees may be ideal for certain positions and tasks. People on the autism spectrum, for example, often excel in engineering, computer science, accounting and other number-crunching and technical jobs, especially if the work doesn’t require much social interaction and offers a quieter environment where they feel safe.

Dawson expects her human resource students to be mindful of these issues and opportunities as they enter the workforce.

“They will be managing people,” she says. “Some of them will be making major decisions in organizations about other people, and I want them to be open-minded about things, to not look at someone and judge their ability, or perceived lack of ability, by what they see. And that goes for any of the diversity issues.

“I want them to give that individual a chance, to let the individual show them what they can do and not be so hung up on limitations.”