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A High Mountain to Climb: Finding Employment for People with Disabilities and Special Needs

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With the warmer spring weather comes the spring fundraising season for non-profit organizations. Much of this fundraising effort is directed towards the business community, trying to tap into their largesse and whatever sense of social responsibility local businesses may have. Fortunately, countless Canadian businesses, both small and large, want to contribute not just to their own bottom line but to the well-being of society as well. My wife runs a community development non-profit here in Montreal, and her organization could not do its work without the great support it gains from the business community--help not only in the form of financial support but also through the many volunteers who come from the corporate sector.

For those corporations with a sense of social responsibility, their concern also extends to other worthy causes, such as protecting the environment. Nonetheless, there appears to be a significant gap in the efforts of socially-concerned businesses, namely providing employment for those with disabilities or special needs. I speak from experience, as my special needs child has reached that stage of life where he is looking for his first summer job. Finding that first summer job, as well as finding that first permanent job, are challenges we have all faced, but they are especially high mountains to climb for those who don't have as broad a set of physical or cognitive capacities as other members of society. Special needs people are quite capable of making their own economic contribution to a business and to society, but it does take an owner or manager who is willing to see past the immediately-apparent limitations in order to invest some patience in the process of placing and training special needs or disabled employees.

There can be preconceptions about special needs persons in the workforce, for instance that they would be unreliable or need coddling, depending upon their particular disability. As with any employee, recruiting people with disability is about hiring people for their abilities. Yes, there are challenges, but there are also significant upsides. Many disabled people bring a positive outlook on life that benefits morale in an organization. More particularly, though, they can bring particular aptitudes that benefit the goals of their employer. For instance, Thorkil Sonne, an IT specialist in Denmark, recognised that persons on the autism spectrum have a high aptitude for very-focused forms of work, such as data entry and software testing. So Sonne founded Specialisterne (Danish for 'Specialists'), an IT services company in which 75% of the employees are autistic or have other special needs. Today Specialisterne's clients include Microsoft and Oracle, and Specialisterne is working with the German IT giant SAP to incorporate autism-spectrum persons into SAP's workforce.

Such examples are hardly limited to the software industry. Randy Lewis was Senior Vice-President of Walgreens, the largest drug-retailing chain in the United States. At one point in his career, Lewis launched the largest pharmaceutical warehouse in America, and intentionally hired one-third of the warehouse employees with disabilities. Over the years Walgreens extended this practice of intentionally hiring disabled persons into other parts of its organization as well. Lewis's story of integrating disabled persons into the workplace, No Greatness without Goodness, is a must-read for corporate leaders.

How does a proactive employer seek out special needs employees? A great place to begin is simply to contact local organizations that support persons with particular special needs or disabilities. Support for employers is available through the Business Disability Forum, which provides online guidance to businesses trying to integrate disabled persons into their workforce. Technological support is also available through The Neil Squire Society, a non-profit that develops and provides technology to assist disabled persons in their work environment.

In the days ahead I will continue to head out with my son, copies of his resume in hand, to visit local restaurants in an effort to land a kitchen job for him. Like any other person, he has terrific qualities that will benefit any employer. We'll keep pounding the pavement until we find an employer who can appreciate the abilities he has to offer.