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Our society thrives when there are opportunities for all

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During the month of October, we embrace National Disability Employment Awareness Month. It’s a time to celebrate America’s workers with disabilities and the diverse workforce that emerges when businesses hire and value them. Our Employment Alliance works with both businesses and job seekers, supporting people especially as they take pride in their strengths and talents to find jobs that are meaningful and rewarding. What Caitlin Redmond shares here as this month’s guest blogger beautifully captures the emotion and importance of the work that’s being done. – Marisa Geitner, President & C.E.O.

 

By Caitlin Redmond, employment specialist with Employment Alliance

A few years ago, I read a book by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, “Half the Sky,” where they look at the Chinese proverb, “Women hold up half the sky.” Basically, it is referencing the historic oppression of women; they hold up half the sky. Our society is not functioning at its maximum potential when women are not equally participating in the workforce. If women are not represented equally, a company, and thus a community, cannot be at its best. We need women.

I have thought about this concept so much in the decade since I read the book. Since becoming a job coach, I began applying it to all marginalized people. Women, people with disabilities, people of color, refugees and immigrants, and those identifying as LGBTQ+ — they all, we all, hold up the sky.

When I became a job coach for people with disabilities, I was intimidated and nervous, having had limited experience. I remember when I met the first person I was to work with. This woman I’ll call Sandra had a significant disability, a language barrier and was living in poverty. After our first meeting, I am ashamed to admit, I thought to myself: There is no way this job will work out for her. There are so many steps to learn! Transportation, job skills, obtaining professional attire, communication with coworkers. The barriers would be too great.

Sandra and I plugged away, though. Really, I should say, Sandra plugged away while I watched and provided side-by-side support when she needed it. Together, we identified hurdles and worked to navigate them. Sandra’s desire and dedication to her work were inspiring, and she overcame every barrier. I was in awe! Work is not always perfect every day for anyone; we are human. But Sandra showed up every day and on time — even during a dismal snowstorm when the roads were shut down and most employees called in. She walked to work, trudging in snow and ice-cold winds for the entire 1.25-mile walk into work. Her boss could count on her. She gobbled up as many hours as they would give her and asked for more. She was reliable and consistent. They needed her. She held up half of their sky. When she moved to another state, they were distressed: “If you ever return to Rochester, you have a job here no matter what.” They were going to be missing out on a great employee.

I think of the bias that still today limits the hiring and advancement of women and people of color.

I think of the scores of people in our LGBTQ+ community who have not been offered jobs because of who they are.

I think now of the Black Lives Matter movement, and of how the ideals of this movement must be brought into the workplace too. I think of Breonna Taylor and everything she could have done for our world, our sky. All the patients who will miss out on her hardworking and capable care. We must not deprive our communities of people like Breonna in any way, even in our hiring practices.

I think of all of the companies and hiring professionals who don’t see the gifts of an applicant because they are blinded by their disability. I can relate: I saw Sandra not for who she was when I met her that very first day. My biased, narrow viewpoint clouded my vision.

Communities, companies, churches and neighborhoods are missing out. We can be better! Our society as a whole is not healthy, competent and thriving until we embrace difference and seek to include that diversity.

Ensuring safe, diverse, inclusive employment opportunities for all is an essential piece of our movement forward.

If you know someone who is interested in learning more about supported employment, please visit heritagechristianservices.org/employmentalliance.