Plus — hiring people with disabilities is good for the economy and the community
Although I’m set to retire at the end of 2016 after a career filled with joys, adversity, challenges and triumphs, I’ll never forget my first job straight out of college.
At 20 years old, I was hired as executive director of a small nonprofit in the beautiful northern Minnesota town of Northome, a community deep in Minnesota’s northern forest.
I launched my career with the same vision that initially led me to pursue a special education degree: my childhood friend with a disability never got to go to school. This was going to be a new day of opportunity, and I was determined to reduce the isolation experienced by those with disabilities.
I went into that first full-time job with a lot of confidence and much to learn. It was a small organization with good people…and learn I did! I learned that a system changes slowly. That young people with disabilities were not in school, or perhaps in school, but not well-served.
I also learned that having a job to call your own in a position where you know you are making a contribution is a fundamental building block of a healthy life.
When it’s assumed that people with disabilities can’t meet performance standards or won’t be successful in a business environment, it robs them of the chance to gain self-confidence and reap the benefits of a healthy life built through their career — something that so many of us take for granted. And it robs society of the contributions they can make.
As President and CEO of Lifeworks Services, a nonprofit that supports more than 800 individuals with disabilities who work in the community, I have seen how easy it is for businesses to overlook job candidates with disabilities.
That’s why I have a profound appreciation for the hundreds of businesses that have partnered with us to prove that people with disabilities can become valuable members of the workforce.
When Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota first started exploring the possibility of hiring individuals supported by Lifeworks in the 1980s, there was a healthy dose of skepticism. Would people with disabilities be able to work in an office? Could they do the work effectively? Would they disrupt others?
One brave manager decided to stop speculating and find out. After initially hiring six Lifeworks associates in 1987, the number quadrupled by the next year as word of their success spread throughout the organization.
Nearly 30 years later, Blue Cross is still benefiting from a diverse and inclusive workforce and continues to work side-by-side with Lifeworks to help individuals with disabilities build their careers.
And as you’d imagine, the impact on the people hired has been just as great. One of the Lifeworks associates at Blue Cross today is Chris Uhl, an individual I met for the first time in 1973 when I came to Lifeworks as a preschool teacher. He was the cutest, most energetic, and bright-eyed child. Like all the children I taught, I wanted the very best for him.
Eventually, he entered the public school system before returning to Lifeworks at age 21. He has held many jobs since his return and has built a successful career at Blue Cross.
I am so grateful to have witnessed his self-confidence grow. Because of his job, he “got a life” that includes his own apartment, a girlfriend to go out with on weekends, and many friends and acquaintances.
Stories like Chris’s have reinforced for me the lesson that I learned from my first job: having a job to call your own is one of the keys to a healthy life.
I’m proud to say that nearly 300 businesses partner with Lifeworks to employ people with disabilities — from Ecolab and Travelers in the East Metro to General Mills and Cargill in the West.
Whether you work for a multinational corporation that spans the globe or a local small business, I urge you not to overlook the value of people with disabilities in your workplace. Our community is at its strongest when everyone has a meaningful role to play.
Judy M. Lysne is the President and CEO of Lifeworks Services, an Eagan-based nonprofit that serves people with disabilities, and a founding board member of the Nonprofit Insurance Trust. Lysne will retire from Lifeworks at the end of 2016 after 43 years with the organization.