By Kerry McGinley
The crowd milling through the Journey of Employment job fair at the University of Washington wasn’t composed of your typical suit-and-tie types. The men and women meeting with potential employers like Bank of America, Amazon, Walmart, Brooks, Kaiser Permanente and Boeing were more of the T-shirt-and-medals set, and that was with good reason. This was the first job fair held in conjunction with the Special Olympics 2018 USA Games, one designed to coach athletes to the same success in the workplace that they’ve earned on the field.
“Special Olympics is more than winning and receiving medals,” said David Egan, Special Olympics International Global Messenger and community relations specialist for SourceAmerica. “We’re engaged in a movement that values people, a movement that helps us discover our talents…a movement that breaks down barriers and creates awareness.”
Egan emceed a series of WorkUnified talks July 5-6 featuring some of the corporations attending the job fair, like Bank of America, which started a hiring program to recruit people with intellectual disabilities more than 25 years ago.
“We see a lot of synergies between what happens on the field, the pool and the court carry over to the workplace, and we see things from the workplace carry over to the field, the pool and the court,” said Bank of America Executive Mark Feinour.
Jo’el Roth, targeted employment navigator for Global Connections to Employment, said during her panel discussion the notion of inclusivity also applies to the approach job seekers should take.
“I always encourage individuals to really be creative when they look at a company,” she said. “No matter what the title of the job is, I always tell individuals to think of the entire company, and in placing individuals, think of the entire person. Every employer in this country has something that needs to be done by somebody.”
Companies benefit by broadening the talent pool to include people with disabilities, said Kellea Williams, Senior Manager, WW Ops Internal Mobility at Amazon, who also took part in a panel discussion.
“Inclusion inspires innovation — that’s what we really see from a business perspective,” Williams said. “It really takes people of all walks of life to really innovate. It really makes the workplace stronger.”
Her co-panelist Mike Walker, who has autism, said his inclusive work environment has improved his communication skills. He appreciates being part of a team where he is valued, he said.
“Even the smallest being can change the course of history,” Walker said. “That’s one thing to think about. Don’t underestimate people just because of their outward appearance.”
Therese Fimian, director of Competitive Integrated Employment Programs for SourceAmerica, joined Kelly Campbell, Special Olympics Washington board member, for a discussion on customized employment programs. SourceAmerica’s Pathways to Careers initiative is an example of this type of program. Pathways staff work closely with applicants to create in-depth, individualized participant profiles detailing each participant’s strengths, interests and aspirations. Pathways staff then use those profiles to match applicants with employers in the community.
“It’s really more about understanding what is it about this individual that the business needs to know to help them identify if they’re going to be a really good match for what the business needs and the unique skills of the athlete,” Fimian said. “What are their skills, abilities and contributions, and how does that relate to what the employer needs?”
A second job fair during the Special Olympics 50th anniversary celebration July 21 will welcome athletes during the Global Day of Inclusion Festival at Soldier Field in Chicago. At this event, athletes will again have the chance to connect with employers and explore potential opportunities. It’s an important part of a larger conversation about empowering people with disabilities in the workplace, Egan said.
“We should be serious about how we talk about inclusion in today’s society,” Egan said. “By being inclusive, we need to really stress about the urgent need why this is needed in communities everywhere. It opens a window to the heart and soul of special Olympics.”