Being gainfully employed can be a point of pride and a reminder of one’s own abilities. Throughout the month of October, Workforce Solutions Texoma plans to hold events to show employers what workers with disabilities can bring to the workforce and the value they can bring to the job.
The activities, which will culminate with a luncheon on Oct. 22, are in recognition of National Disability Employment Awareness Month and discussions with area employers on how to accommodate workers with disabilities.
“It’s an opportunity for us to educate the public, and employers in particular, about hiring people with disabilities,” Workforce Solutions Executive Director Janie Bates said. “There are so many misconceptions that if you have a disability you cannot work, and if truth were known, there are many people who are working who have disabilities. We would like people to know that there are lots of people who would like to work who may have some small barrier that keeps them from working, or maybe there is a large barrier like a lack of transportation.”
Beyond educating employers and the public, the month will also feature information for disabled individuals on what resources are available to help them get back into the workforce. Bates said that disability is a broad term that can encompass many conditions, both obvious and invisible. While mobility, sensory and other common disabilities may be visible to the eye, others are less apparent, she said.
“Take PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) — by looking at someone, you couldn’t tell that,” Bates said. “Someone with severe diabetes wouldn’t be visible either. Then, we also have servicemen returning with various degrees of disability.”
For the luncheon, Bates said she plans to have speakers from different area businesses discuss their ability to work despite being considered disabled. Among the individuals who will speak are a hearing-impaired woman who works as a cashier and a quadriplegic business manager, Bates said.
“These people have a wide variety of disabilities, but they have highly responsible jobs,” she said.
For Bates, the month has another importance. For nearly 20 years, she has used an electric wheelchair for mobility. In 2000, Bates was diagnosed with advanced peripheral neuropathy, which caused intense numbness in her legs and feet and led to issues with balance and stability.
Bates said she could walk with the assistance of a walker, but only for short distances. The transition to using a wheelchair as her primary source of mobility was sped up by a car wreck that required her to use a wheelchair for six months. Following that transition, Bates said she knew she could continue her work with Workforce Solutions, a job she has had for nearly 40 years. The only issue at the time was a lack of adequate transportation.
Bates was able to convert a van to meet her needs. By changing the profile of the vehicle, and installing hand controls, Bates said she is able to continue to drive herself. Still, Bates said she has seen first hand some of the stereotypes that come with the term “disabled.” Bates joked that many doctors she has met in the past have assumed she received disability assistance and were surprised to learn she continued to work.
“Having a job gives you a purpose, it gives you a reason to get up in the morning, and everyone likes to feel like they contribute to something,” Bates said. “I think we all need to have a purpose in order to be happy.”
Local car dealer Blake Utter, who works with Workforce Solutions on its Disability Employment Awareness Board. Utter noted that while local unemployment is currently just over 3 percent and near record lows, the unemployment rate for the disabled is nearly double at 7 percent.
Utter also uses a wheelchair for mobility and said it has had an impact on his professional work. However, he said he has found solutions, including working in a first-floor office with furniture that is set at a proper height for his chair.
“I am glad those accommodations have been made for me by my father, but there are so many people who aren’t given that same chance,” he said.
Utter, as an employer, said he has employed a worker with learning disabilities within his service department for the past three years.
National Disability Employment Awareness Month traces its origin to 1945 when President Harry S. Truman approved a resolution calling for “National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week.” The move came as returning veterans from World War II brought renewed attention to the contributions of those with disabilities.
The word physically was later removed from the title of the week to expand its focus beyond physical impairments and the week was later expanded to the full month of October starting in 1988.
In recognition for the week, the cities of Denison and Sherman both issued proclamations for the respective cities.
“Workplaces welcoming the talents of all people, including those with disabilities, are a critical part of our efforts to build an inclusive community and strong economy,” Denison Mayor Janet Gott said, reading from the proclamation.
In Sherman, Deputy Mayor Pam Howeth read the proclamation before presenting it to Bates.
“The city of Sherman will help raise awareness about disability employment issues and celebrate the many and varied contributions of people with disabilities,” Howeth read.
Herald Democrat Managing Editor William C. Wadsack contributed to this article.