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Everybody Benefits From Meaningful Work

Lebanon

I have been happily employed at Omer & Bob’s Sportshop in Lebanon for three years, unpacking and tagging new shipments in the storage room for nine hours each week. Whenever my co-workers come downstairs for a bike or a pair of skis, we’ll sing a goofy duet to a song on the radio or I’ll chuckle at one of their jokes. Richard Wallace, the owner and patriarch of the shop, always gets a cake for his employees on their birthday. Last year, he felt so horrible about forgetting mine that he and his wife treated me to dinner, which was really special. Working in a stock room may not be the most glamorous job, but I love being a member of the team at Omer & Bob’s.

My work gives me a sense of personal fulfillment that’s worth even more than the steady paycheck. And I believe that it is why many people — including people, like myself, who have disabilities — want to be contributing members of their community. We all want a purpose in life. Unfortunately, new research reveals that the misperception that people with disabilities don’t want the same opportunity as others to work and prove our worth continues to be widespread.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported in mid-March that people with disabilities are paid 25 percent less than people without disabilities. We are usually offered jobs like grocery bagging, dishwashing and janitorial work, for which we are paid less than $25,000 per year. The New Hampshire Bureau of Developmental Services reported in mid-December that about 39 percent of disabled citizens receiving services from the state are employed. While that is above the national average of only 30 percent, unemployment for our cohort is on the rise, according to an April announcement from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nevertheless, almost half of the people served by PathWays, the regional nonprofit that provides services to people with developmental disabilities, are employed, and PathWays is ranked first in the state among agencies that serve the disabled for average hours worked and wages earned.

As vice president of PathWays’ board of directors, I can assure you that the agency considers employment for people with disabilities a top priority. My role on the board is to give my unique perspective as a person with a disability and I will continue to advocate that employment be a major objective of the agency. But I don’t need to push hard because the board unanimously agrees that we should continue to help the people we serve find meaningful jobs. Employment is one of the most effective means for people with disabilities to take part in and contribute to the community.

A friend I met through my involvement with the Council on Developmental Disabilities quit her job bagging groceries after two years because she felt she had more to offer. Since then, however, she has had no luck in finding more desirable employment. I am not saying that bagging is undesirable employment. In fact, another friend of mine takes pride in doing the same work, and does so with a sweet smile as she greets shoppers who come through her lane. But not all people with disabilities fit the same mold. We each have different aspirations, which means that some of us want a job while others want a career that offers advancement. Unfortunately, most career jobs hire only those with experience, and the only way to get that experience is by receiving the necessary training in the very career you wish to pursue. It’s a cruel Catch 22.

People with disabilities aren’t always given a fair shot when applying for a job. Discrimination is illegal, but since employers aren’t required to explain why they reject job candidates, it’s fair to wonder if discrimination exists. Luckily, there are businesses like Omer & Bob’s that understand the importance of inclusion.

The simple truth is that people with disabilities are fiercely loyal employers because we know you took a chance on us. We’re hardworking because we have a burning desire to prove ourselves. And we have job coaches to help us put in place the support we need to be successful. So if you are a business owner or company manager, my message is this: Consider us for the job; we won’t let you down.

John Fenley, 27, was diagnosed with a brain tumor at age 3, which took four surgeries to successfully remove. He lives independently in Lebanon and is a leader of several statewide groups that advocate for fair and equal treatment of people with disabilities.