Champions of Change Blog

  • 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).

  • We Can All Be Change Leaders: Employing People with Many Abilities

    David Bartage

    David Bartage is being honored as a Disability Employment Champion of Change.

    I am surprised and incredibly honored to be recognized as a White House Champion of Change for Disability Employment. What began as a small project has led to be my passion, encouraging businesses to find good-paying and sustainable employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

    In 2010, the Procter & Gamble (P&G) site in Auburn, Maine, began planning to add a customization (FlexiCenter) center into their 24/7 manufacturing operation. During our initial discussions, we discussed how we should staff this center and quickly concluded that we should reapply a staffing model we saw at Walgreen’s Distribution Center, in which 30% to 40% of the employees were people with disabilities.

    A local hiring agency for people with disabilities recommended me to reach out to the Maine Bureau of Rehabilitation Services (ME BRS) to develop strategies to integrate individuals with disabilities into our new customized packaging facility, the FlexiCenter. P&G and ME BRS partnered together to identify people with disabilities, the individuals were trained and assessed by ME BRS, and they were then re-assessed in the P&G workplace. ME BRS also worked with our manufacturing site, providing training to all our employees to better prepare us to encourage and support inclusion in the workplace.

    Today, more than three years after opening the doors to the FlexiCenter, 40% of the FlexiCenter employees are individuals with disabilities, working alongside workers who have not disclosed any disability, performing the same jobs with the same expectations and same pay. Some of the benefits of the FlexiCenter include: increased productivity, zero safety incidents, zero quality incidents, 90% reduction in turnover, a significant improvement in morale, reduced hiring costs, reduced training costs, and increased “goodwill” in Maine.

    As I was getting involved with our FlexiCenter, I worked with the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, and the ME BRS to start up the Maine Business Leadership Network (ME BLN). Since its inception, I have been the business leader of the ME BLN. The ME BLN is a state affiliate of the United States Business Leadership Network (USBLN). The ME BLN offers member employers resources for recruiting candidates with disabilities, information on disability issues, recognition for best disability employment practices, and exposure to an untapped market for their goods and services. We also view our role as that of a catalyst and a "connecting point" to promote dialogue and sharing of best practices between employers in a peer-to-peer setting.

    Upon meeting someone for the first time, we are often times asked, “What do you do?” When asked that question, I imagine that for many the first response is what you do for a living. We take a lot of pride in what we do, and it helps to define who we are. It gives us an identity. 

    Over the last several years, I have seen what employment opportunities have done for our P&G employees with disabilities.  It has given them an identity. It has provided them with an opportunity to be integrated into everyday life. It has impacted the employee and the employee’s family. I have heard parents thank us for giving their child an opportunity to work. They have expressed concern that they felt they had to outlive their child to provide them support. They now have hope that their sons and daughters can make it on their own. 

    What started as a project has turned into a passion for helping others and spreading the word of sustainable employment opportunities for people with disabilities. I encourage you to get started and make a positive change in your own way.

    David Bartage is the Plant Finance Manager for the Procter & Gamble, Auburn, ME facility leading the Auburn sites’ efforts in hiring people with disabilities.

  • ABLE to Work

    Alexandra McArthur

    Alexandra McArthur is being honored as a Disability Employment Champion of Change.

    I love my job. As an Associate Consultant at the Taproot Foundation, I work with the country’s top companies to help them build high-impact corporate pro bono programs. I enable companies to use their most important resources, their people, to support nonprofits that are strengthening our communities. My position is challenging, fulfilling, and provides me with a livelihood. Seems pretty lucky, right?

    As a person with a disability, a member of a population where only one out of three of adults ages 18-64 are employed, I’m more than lucky. Barriers, such as poor inclusion training, inaccessible workplaces, benefit systems that disincentive savings, and lack of financial literacy, are keeping talented persons with disabilities out of the workforce. Thus the poverty rate for people with disabilities is nearly double the U.S. national poverty rate.

    This is why I work to reduce these barriers and change these statistics. In 2011, I was chosen as Ms. Wheelchair America on a platform of promoting workplace inclusion. In this position, I traveled across the nation to speak with corporations, associations, diversity groups, government officials, and job-seekers about how every sector can benefit from the talent, perspective, dedication, and creativity that people with disabilities bring to and encourage in their workplaces.

    As a Co-Chair of the Junior Board of Resources for Children with Special Needs, I’ve helped to expose over 60 young professionals to the often-overlooked needs of the disability community. The Junior Board meets regularly to advocate for policy changes, volunteer with youth with disabilities, and to raise money for the organization. I’m thrilled that this year we chose disability employment as our advocacy focus. The board members now know how to make their workplaces, which include schools, investment firms, media agencies, just to name a few, more open to hiring people with disabilities and more accommodating to employees with disabilities. 

    There is much more work to be done to make improvements in the disability employment statistics, which have remained essentially unchanged since the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act nearly 25 years ago. Workforce development programs must integrate specialized programming for people with disabilities. Employers need training about the positive ways hiring people with disabilities impacts their bottom line, in addition to tangible strategies and avenues for recruiting people with disabilities. The disability community needs specialized financial literacy education.

    But perhaps the most significant change needed is currently sitting in the hands of our lawmakers: the ABLE Act. Presently, a person with a disability who receives Social Security benefits cannot have more than $2,000 to their name without losing those benefits. $2,000. Total. The ABLE Act will provide the option for people with disabilities on benefits to earn a living and save for crucial expenses, such as retirement or medical equipment. Thus, it will allow gainful employment to be a realistic option and a true avenue for wealth accrual for people with disabilities.

    I envision a world where people with disabilities are seen as assets in the workplace and are represented in the middle class. Through workforce development, financial education, and passing of the ABLE Act, let’s take steps together to make this vision a reality.

    Alexandra McArthur is a Senior Associate Consultant at the Taproot Foundation and was Ms. Wheelchair America 2011.

  • Roots and Wings

    Patricia Cortez

    Patricia Cortez is being honored as a Latino Educator Champion of Change.

    On my first day of kindergarten, my mother and I walked to my classroom hand-in- hand and eagerly awaited our turn to meet the teacher. When we finally approached her, she gave us a warm smile and greeted us with words that were familiar and comforting. She spoke to us in Spanish, my first language and my mother’s only language. My parents had made the decision to place me in a bilingual classroom, not knowing that this decision would set the trajectory for my life’s work in the very same district.

    It was 1976, and bilingual education was in its infancy in my school district. There were a small handful of teachers at this school who wanted to prove that bilingual educate could work. And I am grateful that these extraordinary teachers helped me develop my Spanish language skills, enabling me to nurture my cultural bonds with my parents and other relatives. The ability to communicate fully with them, I now realize, was a gift that kept me grounded in and connected to my cultural values and to my heritage.

    I am proud to teach at a school where the expectation is that ALL students in our bilingual immersion program will be fully bilingual and biliterate. In addition to being a teacher, for the last five years, I have also served as the school’s resource teacher, facilitating curriculum development. However, it’s not just about the language. Students are also taught a sense of pride, understanding, and respect for their culture and for other cultures. Their ability to speak multiple languages connects them to the world. What an honor it has been to teach and support my students on this journey.

    I often think of that fateful first day of school—and how the encounter with my first teacher inspired a feeling of trust that served as a foundation for what I do as a teacher almost 40 years later. My hope is to inspire my students to pursue their dreams and to always remember and honor their families and community so that they in turn may serve as an inspiration for future generations.  

    Patricia Cortez Hidalgo is a first grade teacher at Alianza Charter School in California.

  • Investing in Our Children Through Urban Education

    Pedro A. Rivera

    Pedro A. Rivera is being honored as a Latino Educator Champion of Change.

    Growing up in the Hunting Park section of North Philadelphia shaped me into the person I am today. Urban education has always been a part of my life. I was raised by a single teenage mother, and I am the only person in my family to attend and graduate from a post‐secondary institution. My passion for service started while attending Penn State University. While I was enrolled as an engineering major, I began tutoring at a local high school and figured out that I belonged in education. Little did I know at the time, this life-changing experience would lead me down such a rewarding path.

    Upon graduating with a degree in education, I returned to my hometown to teach English Language Learners at Kensington High School and basic literacy to adults in the evenings. My passion became clear as I took great pride in changing the lives of kids and serving the greater community. After several roles in the classroom, union, and central office administration, I moved my family nearly 80 miles west to become the first Latino Superintendent of the Lancaster School District.

    This new role provided me with an opportunity to advocate for change. While education is an ever‐evolving process, I was now able to lead the charge. After placing a large emphasis on high-quality instruction and hiring the best and the brightest teachers, positive results followed. Our graduation rates continue to rise, and our students have made steady gains in state assessment scores. We have also provided a nationally acclaimed music and arts program and received a recent recognition by the Washington Post as one of the top twenty high schools for academic rigor in Pennsylvania. 

    Nestled in the heart of Lancaster County in southeast Pennsylvania, the School District of Lancaster serves a diverse student body of 11,500 students, which educates approximately 1,000 homeless students during the course of a year. 17% of our students are learning English, and more than 38 languages are spoken throughout our buildings. 

    We know that we must remove barriers to success in order for our students to thrive. For the past several years, every student in our District has received free breakfast and lunch each school day. Through our community schools, students can receive eye glasses, dental care, and comprehensive medical services. Education is much more than teaching the core subjects. We must cater to the whole child to ensure we meet and exceed their individual needs.

    I am deeply honored to receive the Latino Educator Champion of Change award. I continue to be humbled and inspired by the many professional team members I surround myself with each day. Together, all of us can strengthen America’s future by supporting the many students who fill our classrooms.

    Pedro Rivera is the Superintendent of the School District of Lancaster and a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania.