Champions of Change Blog

  • Catalyst for Change

    Jennifer Rojas

    Jennifer Rojas is being honored as a Disability Employment Champion of Change.

    As with most things, “disability” means different things to different people. It can be empowering and shameful, unifying and divisive. To me, it is a way of life—it is in the air I breathe, the steps I take, and the choices I make each and every day. While I take pride in how far I’ve come, I believe it is important for society to remember that I am not particularly brave or courageous. While I am disabled, I am just like you.

    Yet, I also recognize that individuals with disabilities often experience moments in which they are seen as something less than themselves. Maybe they are left out of office activities and daily conversations with co-workers. Maybe they miss out on employment benefits—or employment opportunities. I have found that many people believe that individuals with disabilities have unique sets of experiences. And while this may be true, it gives credence to the notion that individuals with disabilities cannot take full part in society. It reinforces societal myths, fears, and misunderstandings that hinder progress for individuals with disabilities. So, the question is, how do we change this?

    I see it as my job to help dismantle these impediments. In 2013, McLane Company introduced the SPARK initiative. The initiative aims to increase awareness and provide meaningful employment opportunities to people with disabilities by implementing inclusion strategies that recognize talent, increase engagement, and drive business results.

    As Inclusion Manager for McLane Company, I recognize two ideas that lead to successful disability employment—disability awareness and change leadership. These ideas are inherently co-dependent. Disability awareness draws on the understanding that education is powerful and lends itself to breaking barriers of perception. After all, you don't know what you don't know. At its core, successful change leadership is ultimately about unity. Significant changes towards policy and inclusion are formed not only by instituting large-scale programmatic change but also by encouraging the individual understanding of both the problem and the solution. I believe change leadership is not something that can be pushed on to people; it must start small and be given room to cultivate.

    I came to McLane with over 10 years of experience in the public workforce system and disability employment. I knew that the programs and systems in place were good, that they were valuable, and that they could produce favorable results. I also knew that the individuals coming out of these programs could be successful only with industry at the table. However, this kind of innovation must extend beyond individual companies and be felt across the nation. With the passing of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014, the country is creating better avenues for preparing job seekers with disabilities to compete. This is the kind of change that we must all work for to continue to create a new era of disability employment.

    Jennifer Rojas is the Inclusion Manager for McLane Company, Inc. 

  • Innovative Opportunities for Entrepreneurship

    Dan Hromas

    Dan Hromas is being honored as a Disability Employment Champion of Change.

    I am the owner and operator of Prairie Pride Poultry, a small pastured chicken operation located on the northeast edge of York, Nebraska. I started the farm in 2013 in order to support the growing local food movement by providing healthy, farm fresh eggs to area consumers. 

    At the farm, we pride ourselves on the humane treatment of the flock of heritage Rhode Island Red chickens. The farm’s standards and practices are conducive to a happy and healthy flock. Coops are moved around the acreage, each one having plenty of floor area, roosting space, and nesting boxes. The flock’s pasture diet is supplemented with feed that does not contain any chemicals, hormones, antibiotics, or animal byproducts; the feed comes from only 14 miles away from a cooperative that has recently achieved HACCP Certification, the highest level of accreditation for food safety in the United States. 

    In addition to providing the local community with farm fresh eggs, Prairie Pride Poultry also assists in educating consumers and potential farmers about the “Incredible Edible Egg” by sharing interesting facts and information about the widely used and versatile protein source, as well as fostering an environment whereby everyone can feel welcomed at and connected to the farm. I’ve engaged local communities through the York Chamber of Commerce, establishing a great working relationship with Grand Central Grocery in York and participating in the Center for Rural Affairs’ “Farm to School” initiative by selling eggs to York Public Schools, setting up at local farmer’s markets, and raising awareness about importance of a healthy diet that can include eggs. 

    Before working on the farm, I served in the U.S. military in Iraq. I have also served as a Captain in the Nebraska Army National Guard as a Transportation Corps Officer. I am fortunate enough to have had my hard work receive national recognition through the Farmer’s Veteran Coalition’s national marketing campaign, “Homegrown by Heroes.” I have utilized services from the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society, Center for Rural Affairs, and the Farmer Veteran Coalition as a platform for outreach to other fellow disabled military veterans so that they know a future exists for them in the field of agriculture.

    I am honored to receive this Champions of Change award. I hope that other veterans with disabilities will similarly find their own entrepreneurship opportunities, gaining meaningful employment and contributing to their local communities.

    Dan Hromas is the owner and founder of Prairie Pride Poultry, a pasture-raised egg business in York, Nebraska.

  • Inclusion Is Imperative in Today’s World

    Angela Mackey

    Angela Mackey is being honored as a Disability Employment Champion of Change.

    As an individual with a disability, I know all too well the barriers that those in this segment of our society face. Historically, opportunity and disability seldom go hand-in-hand. I grew up with a grandfather who also had a disability, and I learned that others sometimes used his disability as a reason for exclusion from privileges such as education, a meaningful career, and social acceptance. Being around him as a child, I knew the barriers I would also one day face. The conversations growing up between myself and my grandfather were motivational exchanges, in which he listened to me recite my goals for the future and, in response, offered words of encouragement regarding them coming to fruition. I often wonder what my fate might have been without those interactions.

    I was fortunate. At an early age, I understood that through my own determination, hard work, and God, I could be more than just a person with a disability. I also knew that with an education, and eventually a career, I would have a voice. Without a job, I knew that it would be extremely difficult for me to feel like I was in control. In my mind, work equated to personal power. Work, in a lot of ways, leveled the playing field. I might not have the ability to run a mile or score a homerun, but I could operate a computer system with the best of them.

    This ideology is why I believe inclusion is so imperative in today’s world of work. I often tell those I train that I am just as capable as someone without a disability, but until I am provided an opportunity to show what I can do, nobody believes it.  Luckily, I have had two organizations, South Carolina Vocational Rehabilitation and Walgreens, to open their doors to me to show what I can do, and in doing so, I have assisted others in doing the same. Inclusion does not mean that we want an easier job or a different set of standards. We just want a chance to enter the door like anyone else.

    Angela Mackey is a Human Resources Generalist at the Walgreens Distribution Center in Pendergrass, Georgia.

  • Recruitment of All Abilities Is Just Good Business

    Oswald Mondejar

    Oswald Mondejar is being honored as a Disability Employment Champion of Change.

    As an immigrant from Cuba, my mother cherished the American virtues of freedom, independence, and opportunity. She told my sister and me that, in this country, anything is possible. The honor of being selected as a Champion of Change by the White House is proof of that. It’s so humbling because I know that I’m merely representing the work and voices of so many others who paved the way.

    Growing up with a limb difference, I learned from an early age that my biggest challenge would always be overcoming others perceived “limitations” of what I could and could not do. There’s no place that another’s perception about your abilities has a greater impact than in the workplace. I got my first job at age 13, and seeing my name on a paycheck for the work I’d done was empowering. A job wasn’t simply about survival; it provided dignity, camaraderie with coworkers, and a fully independent life.

    Fast forward to a career spent in Human Resources, and what I have seen is that people with disabilities are seldom given a fair chance to show what they can do. To many employers, the workplace is full of impediments (physical barriers, policies and, yes, attitudes), that make it “too much trouble” to hire them. While we’ve made great progress, there’s more work to be done.

    Unemployment and underemployment for people with disabilities remain incredibly high, and that is a call to action for all of us. Our charge is to seek out and find creative solutions to these old challenges.

    Working at Spaulding Rehabilitation Network (SRN) has been a great opportunity. At SRN, I have helped develop the “Working Partners” program, a first of its kind public/private partnership focusing on providing people with disabilities the skills and support they need to join the workforce and improve their overall quality of life. Like any worthy endeavor, it takes an intrepid group of collaborators to be successful, and I am incredibly fortunate to partner with my colleagues from Partners HealthCare and the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission (MRC) to make this all possible. Through Working Partners, qualified candidates with disabilities work directly with an embedded MRC employment specialist and Spaulding’s hiring managers to navigate the employment process with the ultimate goal of job placement at SRN or within Partners HealthCare.

    But Working Partners does more than provide assistance with finding a job. With their new positions, candidates are empowered to take more control over their lives. They feel the great sense of pride that comes with entering or re-entering the work force and contributing their talents to something far greater than themselves. 

    While many businesses and agencies speak about diversity or inclusion, much of this talk is hollow. In order to truly progress, leading companies must see what efforts like Working Partners are; just good business. The productivity and talent that people with disabilities can contribute is only limited by our own perceptions of what is possible. 

    Oswald “Oz” Mondejar is the Senior Vice President for Mission and Advocacy for Partners Continuing Care, the non-acute care division of Partners HealthCare based in Boston, Massachusetts. 

  • It’s the Economy!

    John Robinson

    John Robinson is being honored as a Disability Employment Champion of Change.

    Did you know that individuals with disabilities have $2.7 trillion in annual disposable income in the United States? Did you know that the unemployment rate for individuals with disabilities is 12.3%, as compared to 5.5% for able-bodied citizens? Now imagine what the disposable income would be in the United States the unemployment rates of those two groups was the same.

    It's the economy! We live in an economy that is built upon growth. Yet, we are seeing the baby boomers leaving the workforce. We see an increased population of individuals with disabilities in aging citizens, soldiers coming back from service injured, and individuals with developmental disabilities. We as a society need to be able to filling positions with individuals with disabilities. If our economy is to grow, this population must be utilized.

    Twenty-five years ago, at the beginning of the Americans with Disabilities Act, I had just graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in television, radio, and film management. Many of my peers received job offers around the United States, while I moved back in with my parents and cleaned swimming pools to make ends meet. I had strong grades, had a successful internship in Boston, and was well prepared for an entry-level position. Unfortunately, society was not ready for a quadruple amputee looking for gainful employment in media. It took me four years before I was offered an entry-level position inside a television station.

    Twenty-five years later, I am proud to have had a long career inside the television industry. I am equally proud of my advocacy work on behalf of individuals with disabilities. At Our Ability, we are working inside American companies to facilitate employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities. We are using our communications experience to help facilitate internal messaging. We are building disability etiquette training seminars inside companies. We are building an online portal for individuals with disabilities to be able to upload their skill set—Our Ability Connect. As the founder of Our Ability, I am very purposely building the foundation that I and so many others needed 25 years ago.

    I know we are on the right path. With the changing regulations for federal contractors and subcontractors, there is now an increased interest from businesses to find out more about including people with disabilities in their workforce. I can see it in the seminars I give to human resource managers, who pick up the pens and take notes especially when I talk about disability etiquette and sensitivity. There is an increased awareness about communicating effectively with people who are deaf and visually impaired. This expanded understanding of how to communicate with coworkers is vital to a successful inclusive organization.

    While it seems like an impossible goal to level the unemployment statistics between individuals with disabilities and able-bodied citizens, it is something we all need to work towards. Our global economy is built upon growth, and by including individuals with disabilities in the next 25 years we can increase that $2.7 trillion annual disposable income.

    Why are the statistics so important? Employment is only one portion of the total self-worth of the individual, but it is quite possibly the most important. We all identify ourselves by where we work. It's one of the first things we mentioned when we introduced ourselves to someone new. We all understand how inferior we feel when we are unemployed or underemployed. This is especially true with someone with a disability. By opening opportunities for inclusive hiring inside major companies, we are not only affecting our economy but are also building the next generation of confident individuals. We as a society are truly becoming inclusive.

    John Robinson is Managing Partner and CEO of Our Ability, a company owned and operated by people with disabilities for people with disabilities.

  • Disability Is My Strength

    Jenny Lay-Flurrie

    Jenny Lay-Flurrie is being honored as a Disability Employment Champion of Change.

    As a person with a disability who is passionate about enabling others with disabilities, I am humbled and honoured to be a White House Champion of Change.

    My journey with disability started early. By the age of 5, my hearing was already declining, a process that would continue over the next 30+ years. As a teenager and even through most of my twenties, I felt that I needed to hide my disability. My hearing loss is now profound, but by asking for the help I need and seeing my disability as a strength, I have been able to make myself – and now my employer – stronger. I am fortunate to work for a company that empowers and enables people to be successful.  I wake up excited every morning, eager to get to work. I’m lucky to be in a position to make a difference, and this fact drives me to do more every day.

    I am a Senior Director at Microsoft, leading the Trusted Experience Team (TExT), which focuses on privacy, online safety, and accessibility. Our goal is to provide a positive experience for all customers. As with any great journey, mine started by taking big terrifying steps. The first was to identify to Microsoft as a person with a disability.  I joined the deaf ‘huddle’ group at Microsoft and went on to create and lead the DisAbility Employee Resource Group (ERG), a community of amazing people with disabilities, advocates, colleagues, and parents who share best practices and elevate understanding. At our first annual ‘Ability Summit’ four years ago, 80 people showed up. This past spring, 800 people came to Redmond headquarters to spend the day, which featured our CEO Satya Nadella, Washington Governor Jay Inslee, and many others. The theme of the summit was “Imagine, Build, Enable,” and we have taken that to heart at Microsoft.

    In 2012, we announced the Disability Answer Desk (DAD), providing specialized support for customers with disabilities. Today, DAD helps about 4,000 customers a month do more with Microsoft products and services. The team is made up of talented people both with and without disabilities. In addition, I work with the Washington State Disability Taskforce, a public-private group focused on driving representation of people with disabilities in state government to at least 5%. Lastly, I sit on the US Business Leadership Network (USBLN) board of directors, which works towards disability inclusion in the workplace. It’s more “than just doing the right thing;” it’s about enabling people to be successful and achieve their dreams. It’s about changing lives, just as mine was changed. 

    At Microsoft, we are imagining and building technology for people with disabilities. During our company-wide ‘Hackathon’, we had projects focused on improving technology for people with deafness, blindness, autism, and more. Out of nearly three thousand submitted “hacks,” six of these projects placed in the top 100.  I’m most proud of our work with former NFL player Steve Gleason, who is living with ALS, to help create prototype technology to independently move a wheelchair via eye tracking. This work won the 2014 Microsoft Hackathon Grand Prize!

    My disability motivates me to strive for a higher bar—a new level of independence and empowerment. It helps me to understand and have empathy for our customers.  I work to drive this understanding into Microsoft to create better products. So go on, if you want to know more about your customers, take that step and hire a person with a disability. They’ll teach you all you need to know.

    Jenny Lay-Flurrie is a Senior Director at Microsoft, leading the Trusted Experience Team (TExT).

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