October is Disability Employment Awareness Month (DEAM) in the state of Florida. But thanks to efforts spurred on by The Able Trust, DEAM is no longer a day, week, or even month-long activity.
Meaningful employment opportunities for Floridians with disabilities stem from internships, job-shadowing, and other job-readiness measures that cannot be accomplished in a day. It takes a committed, year-long effort to hone job seekers for the positions they seek to fill. Further, education and dispelling of myths held by many employers is a critical part of opening doors to successful employment for what to this point has been a virtually untapped resource.
"The largest, and most committed state in the union when it comes to DEAM activities is Florida," Able Trust Board Chair Karen Moore said.
On September 22, The Able Trust kicked off the DEAM season with an awareness event in Orlando, which was immediately followed by the annual Ability Awards ceremony, where several individuals and organizations from across the state were recognized for their accomplishments in creating employment opportunities.
Senator Jack Latvala has been a staunch supporter of The Able Trust and its mission, going to bat for the organization during the past legislative session. He was recognized as Senator of the Year for his efforts.
"It has been my pleasure to work with The Able Trust for many years," Latvala said. "There are a lot of needs in Florida. As a legislator, some things we do a good job of. Others we need to do more work. Successful employment for Floridians with disabilities is an area that we can do more work in."
Manufacturing is a growing job sector in the state, and Executive Director of the Central Florida Manufacturers Association (MACF), Sherry Reeves, sees the need for hiring Floridians with disabilities to help her industry continue to thrive.
"Many often ask why hire an individual with a disability?" Reeves remarked. "These employees have high retention rates, are loyal to their employers. The Able Trust and MACF work closely with local schools to invite students with disabilities to participate in tours, engaging them in the pursuit of careers, putting them to work, and giving them support."
Of course, in looking toward the workforce of tomorrow, The Able Trust is investing today in the lives of students with disabilities. R.J. Curtis is one of several hundred students across the state that participates in the Florida High School High Tech (HSHT) program. Not only is R.J. a student with a disability, but he was also in the foster-care system, where, due to his age and disability, had less than a 5% chance of being adopted before aging out and being on his own. Had this occurred, R.J. would have only been a sophomore in high school, without any guidance or support. Fortunately for him, that was not the case.
"My story could have been very different today," Curtis said. "I had spent 5,475 days in foster care before meeting my mom. I was small and very shy, and had never completed an entire school year at one school, which led to my disabilities not being addressed. Today, I am an incoming senior at Pepin Academy with a 3.4 GPA and making plans to attend college. I worked at a UPS store this summer and gained valuable work experience. I've had a chance to play on a baseball team and get my driver's license; common things for kids my age, but not for kids in foster care. I thank The Able Trust for providing a program like high school high tech that gives me confidence and employment skills."
Universal Orlando Vice President of Human Resources, Scot LaFerte, shared the importance of diversity and inclusion from an employer's perspective. He echoed the importance of DEAM as a continuing effort to broaden awareness and change organizational cultures, making them more welcoming.
"Diversity allows us to strengthen bonds; not just in terms of teamwork, but provides our guests with a much better experience," he said. "It is our culture. It's who we are and what we believe. "When we invite our guests to come and visit us. We mean ALL guests; not just the ones that look like me."
Diversity has led to innovation, giving way to new ideas and ways of thinking that would not have been possible otherwise.
Universal Orlando has seven diverse Team Member Resource Groups that help ensure that all voices have a chance to be heard. One of those groups is the MyAbilities Network, whose purpose is to value the unique perspective of people with varying abilities in the workplace. The MyAbilities network helps promote awareness, embrace inclusion, and provide education to help break the barriers that sometimes exist for people with varying abilities.
"At Universal, we work to recognize and celebrate the way Team Members stand out for being who they are," LaFerte added. "We do that by tapping into their unique talents and abilities, cultivating their skills and honoring their differences. Being different and standing out is a part of who we are, it’s how we connect. Our Team Members who have a disability do not want to be defined by their disability but rather want to be recognized for their unique abilities and contribution to the business. Think of your best moments at work. I bet they happen when you work on a diverse team where people come together, being their best selves in truly authentic ways... something The Able Trust knows a lot about."