Don’t Accept Me, Expect Me

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One Red Fish Surrounded By Blue Fish.

I did it once. I gave in to my disability. I was struggling in college: juggling a double major, a part-time job, a sorority, and track season was right around the corner. My schedule was a breeze when going through manic mode. But when dealing with the low side of bi-polar, the battle was uphill and the finish line looked a lot farther than the 400m sprint I was used to training for.  So I gave in.

It was the end of my 8 am class and I went to my professor. It was just a general education course and I was only a semester away from graduation. I did what I had never done for any class. I told the professor about my disability. I chalked it up for all it was worth. I explained that I was dealing with med changes and my schedule was full. None of it was really a lie.

I don’t regret telling my professor that I have bi-polar disorder, but I do regret why I told him. I was looking for a way out; a way to make the day easier. The class didn’t really matter. It was just a nuisance class I had to take to graduate. I wanted an easy A and I knew that by gaining a little sympathy it would be possible.

Just to be clear, the one perk of having a disability is to use sympathy for our advantage. But taking that one gesture toward sympathy sets us two steps back in our abilities. That day when I told the professor about my disability, I was screaming for the professor to accept me for my differences. What he really did was even better; he expected me for being the same.

It’s not difficult to spin into the acceptance trend. Short or tall, red or blue, we want people to take us how we are. But when it comes to rising up to a challenge, we can be quick to remind others of our faults and excuse ourselves from rising to the top. We are no longer expected and we sink ourselves back down to the minority that is comfortable and safe.

As we gear up for the back to school season, I want to encourage all parents and teachers to not provide students with a letter of acceptance, but with an impression of expectance. There are many times that we say as novices that “we can’t” when the fact is that “we won’t”. When we decide that we won’t do something because our disabilities hold us back, then we will never really reach our full potential.

I got an A in that class. Though I told the professor about my disability for the wrong reasons, he was gracious in letting me take my time to learn in a way that was right for me. I didn’t go to class every day, but I studied, and I felt as though I earned the A.

Employment First?

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Regarding the Employment First Mandate, which states, According to state law in Ohio, employment services for people with developmental disabilities shall be directed at community employment and all people with developmental disabilities are presumed capable of community employment.

I am an employer of a small coffee shop in Urbana, Ohio. I am the sibling of three individuals with developmental disabilities, and I currently employ six individuals with developmental disabilities.
First, not all individuals with developmental disabilities are employable. As both an employer and sibling of individuals that are not typically abled, I am rather lenient compared to most employees when it comes to implementing the abilities of these individuals. However, there are many individuals that have a disability that I will never hire. My sister, whom I love dearly, will never have a job with me. No matter what training she is given, she will never be up to the standards I need to run an efficient business. If I, a dominant advocate for these individuals, will not hire, then it should be presumed that other businesses will not take the risk either.

Second, I will not hire these individuals out of pity, nor should any business be swayed to hire an individual with a disability for their life circumstances. Many county SSA’s have hounded me and a couple vocational programs that I work with to simply give an individual a job. It is assumed that because the individual is mandated to have a job that employers will jump on this bandwagon. That is simply not true. I interview every individual, whether typically functioning or not, to see how they will fit into my business.

Third, individuals are expected to get community jobs, where they are expected to build relationships with other abled-bodied individuals. Some individuals are empowered by getting a community job. Others are very hesitant. They feel that it will be similar to their education experiences, where they were always considered at the bottom, and they have no hope that they will ever see promotion. By mandating these individuals to work with typically functioning individuals, they will not have the same opportunity to build relationships. It is as if we are saying, your other disabled peers are not good enough; you won’t get the opportunity to build a relationship with them. It is an external fight to get employers to hire these individuals, but what is the internal value for employees within the workplace?

Fourth, individuals are expected to seek jobs directly after graduation. I would like to amend that these individuals are not expected to go directly into a job, but rather vocational and day habilitation programs. These programs should not all be disregarded, but implemented as a higher education method for transitioning these individuals into the workplace.

The Can/Will Matrix

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IMG_0954-0.JPGIn my previous blog, “Why Hire Individuals with Disabilities?”, I tried to clear up some of the fears behind hiring individuals with disabilities (Hence the blog title.) Many of these individuals have a unique skill set that can be very valuable for virtually any business.

As a community opportunity employer, (Which basically means that I hire individuals with disabilities), I have a strong passion in highlighting the skills of my workers, both typical and not. I have learned that many of my workers have factors that make them good workers. However, I want to clear one issue up. For centuries, people with disabilities have been declared unable to work, mindless, worthless. In fact, before Jews, Hitler’s first genocide target was individuals with disabilities. If they couldn’t work than they had no real benefit to his invincible society.

Years of segregation and harsh stereotypes may be a lot for these individuals to carry on their shoulders, but many have realized that if they work for the prize they too can be successful. But to say every individual with a disability has this persistent mindset would be just as stereotypical as past societal assumptions.

I have a very analytical mind, and I constantly assess the performance of my workers. I wanted to be able to assess the abilities of my workers based on both performance and character. I made an assessment that I use every three months to analyze each individual, both disabled and typical. The assessment grades on:

–Task Ability: Scales ability to do tangible tasks such as washing dishes or making drinks.
–Application Ability: How long does it take the individual to learn tasks independently?
–Initiative: Does the individual need constant guidance, or are they proactive in finding work?
–Relations With Others: Does the individual get along with co-workers and management?

(If you would like a copy of a performance assessment, feel free to email me at bobbi.custer@spottedcowcoffeehouse.com)

Considering the areas above, I have found that there are two major factors that affect my assessment categories. Ability or Can, and Desire or Will. Individuals both disabled and typical can be categorized in one of the four areas: Can/Will, Can/Won’t, Can’t/Will, Can’t/Won’t. Deciding what category an individual falls under has helped me determine whether or not an individual has the ability to excel, and provide overall benefit for my business.

I want to go over each section in detail, but I want you to keep in mind the phrase, Where there’s a Will, There’s a Way. In other words, individuals that are willing will lower your turnover rate, and provide the overall potential that you would like to achieve. It’s also important to pair the skill with the job being applied for. For example, an individual may accell at factory work, but if your business is in food service, the individual’s skills and desire may not necessarily transfer over.

Can/Will: This individual should be an automatic hire. I have an individual with a disability that shines brightly in this category. This category means that they have both desire and ability to do a job.

The reason that I hired her was of her excellent interview. I could tell by her responses that she was a hard worker. She also indicated that she loved the idea of working in the food industry. Though our coffee shop does not currently serve food, the preparation, skills, and challenges are similar. Considering these aspects, the individual continues to improve, and she provides a lot of worth to my business. For example, When she first started, she would just hand cups to a worker who knew how to make drinks. Now, this individual can make all the drinks while reading a recipe book, and she can run the cash register independently. Her progress assessment score was rather high, and we decided that her next focus would be speed. (Stay tuned for my next blog that talks about training individuals with disabilities, particularly in regards to speed)

Can/Won’t: I have also hired an individual that falls within this category, and I have decided that I will never hire an individual again if they have these aspects, whether typical, or disabled, and no matter how skilled they are. This category means that the individual has the ability to do the work, but they are not willing.

What is difficult about individuals that fall under this category is that at surface level, this individual can appear to be a Can/Will candidate. They may be backed with experience, and they know how to be viewed as a hard worker. Overall, they appear to have potential. I am still working on some sort of analytical way to decipher this person from the first category at first glance. But after a few months, all four areas of the performance assessment will drop–Initiative will start low, application and task ability will follow, and finally relations with others will deplete.

The individual that I hired that fell under this category appeared to have the qualities needed. She has a disability, but she has an attractive character, which is important in the service business. She also has the ability to do many jobs, and it was clear that her learning ability was strong enough to aid her in success in our workplace. But as time went on, her “won’t” factor began to glisten. I would give her jobs to do, and she would do the work, but she didn’t own the job; she had no passion for the work. As the weeks went on her lacadaisical character continued to glisten. Soon she started skipping work, and she wouldn’t call to confirm her absense. We talked, she cried, and she promised she would do better. Even after our talk, nothing really improved, and do to her consistent absense, I had to let her go.

Anyone that falls within this category creates a justification in their mind as to why they are not willing to put in the effort. For many people with disabilities, this justification is often the same: “I have a disability. I am different. Therefore I don’t need to try, and I don’t need to grow.” Think about your typical workers that are often late. They may often blame their tardiness on weather or the traffic. Like individuals with disabilities that fall in this category, the tardy worker has justified that they are entitled to be late.

Letting the individual go was hard, because my goal is always to provide a workplace that creates opportunity and a quality of life for the individual. But the sad truth is that once the individual has let the justification set in, whatever it may be, then they are no longer willing, and therefore they are no longer teachable. Realistically, they have decided that you cannot provide worth to them and therefore they cannot provide use to your business.

Can’t/Will: On the surface, this individual may appear to be someone that you do not want to hire. They are willing to try whatever you ask, but they often fall short of your expectations. But this employee can still provide worth to your business at an intangible level.

I hired a young lady that falls within this category. Her performance assessment score was low in task ability and application ability. However her relationship with others and her initiative were high. Over time task ability and application ability start to follow the suit of relations with others and initiative. Many individuals with disabilities will fall under this category. Their drive can help them actually develop into a Can/Will individual. As an employer, this worker will be desireable at a long term glance, but efforts toward success will begin as limited.

The individual that falls within this category is still just handing cups to other workers that can make drinks. She is learning what pastries to grab for guests, and how to prepare them depending on whether the order is here or to-go. This individual has learned to do a lot of our custodial work (e.g. sweeping and wiping tables) independently. She also does these independent jobs without being told to start them.

Because this individual has a strong desire to work, her passion is strong in what she can do. Recently I had all of my workers create a list of ten coupons or ideas to present that we could possibly implement. One idea that this individual created was a princess mother daughter tea party. At our coffee shop, we would throw a mother/daughter event and provide a discount on tea and a pastry for them to enjoy. This idea is something that I as the employer would never have thought of, but it’s ingenious! It allows us to offer an event that targets young mothers, one of our target markets. This individual had not known anything about our marketing ideas, but she took her own passion and imagination to create something our business may not have implemented otherwise. Therefore because of her initiative, relations with others, and her dynamic ideas, this individual has proved that she is a contributor to our business. More so, she is teachable, and I am confident that she will become an even more desireable employee over time.

Realistically, you can’t hire an employee based on what ideas they may or may not contribute. In the instance of Can’t/Will, you may have to consider the idea of job carving. I will write more on this in an upcoming blog.

Can’t/Won’t: An individual that falls under this category is of no worth to your business, and your business is of no worth to them. You will be able to tell without doubt that this is not someone you want to hire. I have hired many people with disabilities, and considering that, I as an employer can be considered more gracious than most. But there is still a point where I draw the line. I look at my sister. She has Cri Du Chat syndrome, she struggles to walk on uneven ground, she can only say one to two words at a time, she has many behavior issues. I will never hire my sister Randi to work at my shop, and she has no desire to work there. Though it may come across that I have no heart for her, I love my sister, and though she may never hold a job, she still has a quality of life. She improves in other ways and she doesn’t need a job to define success. For example, three years after Randi came to live with our family, her psychiatrist told my parents, “I don’t know what you did with this girl, but I never thought she would be able to go out in public.”

As a sibling of three individuals with disabilities, it is my job to advocate for their quality of life. But, as a realistic businesswoman, I also realize that no matter what the Employment First mandate states, not every individual whether disabled or typical, has the desire or ability to work. As an example, I have no desire to be a surgeon and if someone handed me a scaple and told me to go to town, I promise more harm than good would be done. The Employment First mandate says that if the person has the capability then they should own a job. In other words, if the individual has an ability to flip burgers, they should get a job at McDonald’s. I think it’s important that the state, employers, and the individual all consider the individual’s willingness as well. I know for a fact that if I were working at McDonald’s that my mindset would resemble that of a Can/Won’t individual. It’s setting up a failed relationship between the employer and employee. It’s not to discredit the worth of McDonald’s. My point is that saying someone that has the ability to work but they are mandated to do something they are not willing to do is Hitleristic. Saying someone has no benefit to society without holding a job is degrading them. Frankly, as an employer I am not concerned with how many widgets an individual made in a hour. I want to know that they can smile at a guest, and work toward providing quality service. Quality of life should never be considered quantity of life.

Why Hire Individuals with Disabilities?

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The idea of hiring an individual with a disability can be a scary thought. Questions often arise like, Can they put in the effort I need? Will I have to make special accommodations? Or, What is the worth for my business? In this blog, I would like to encourage you to consider the idea. Not just because it gives quality of life to the individual, but because they have a lot more to offer than what may be visible on the surface.

To scratch the surface of some of the questions above, many individuals with disabilities are more than willing to put in the effort you are looking for. They know they are different. For some, their limitations are an easy justification to be lazy. But for many, they know how hard they must work to achieve a goal, and their perseverance builds a strong work ethic for them. All of my workers with developmental disabilities show up on time, and put full efforts toward their job within the work day. Some of them are even upset if they are told to take a break! Overall, when you find the right individual, they will display character and effort that surpasses many typically functioning workers.

Many workers with disabilities are a breath of fresh air when it comes to work ethic, but it is true that some accommodations may need to be made. Many individuals that are actively searching for a job are paired with a job coach. This coach will analyze the worker’s performance to be certain that he or she is at the level that you want them to be at. Some coaches stay on the job with the worker. Others just visit on occasion to access progress. Job coaches are at no cost to the employer, and it is up to you to decide how involved you would like the job coach to be.

Hiring a person with a disability broadens the diversity of you workplace, and they can provide a unique perspective. For example, I had all of my workers develop coupon ideas for my coffee shop. Some of the ideas were outrageous, like, buy a shirt for a dollar and get a hat for free. Others were very unique. Mother/Daughter princess tea party. Even if some factors seem way out of the box, these individuals can spark new ideas that can turn into something extraordinary. In addition, there are some tax incentives to hiring a person with a disability that can be financially attractive.

Many individuals with disabilities can bring a great dynamic to your business, but to be realistic, not all individuals can bring to the table what you are looking for. Please read my next blog, The Can/Will Matrix, to get an idea of which individuals are worth hiring.

Letters to Lee: Drive Through

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2014-10-13 08.30.21-2These are portions of my letters to Lee Shobe, the former CEO of DowBrands. He has been a major mentor throughout the start of my business, The Spotted Cow Coffeehouse. These letters may come across as a bit unprofessional, but they represent what I am learning through my adventure as a young female entrepreneur.

We opened a drive through a couple of weeks ago. It was in my beginning business plan, but we had to go through three zoning meetings to get it passed. We had some problems with neighbors to start. They were worried that the drive through would cause traffic down their alley ways. During the first meeting, the neighbors expressed concerns at the meeting but the overall issue was that we did not have the drive through route charted out clearly enough. So they tabled our request to the second meeting.

At the second meeting, someone suggested putting in a gate so that traffic would not use the alley ways. On a board of five people, two people agreed, one person disagreed because he didn’t feel it was the job of the zoning board to enforce gates being put up in alley ways, one person disagreed with the idea of us having a drive through all together, and one person was absent. We needed 4 votes to pass. We got two.

The man that disagreed all-together was the chair of the zoning board and he sure gave me some grief. He came out to the shop, didn’t bother to come in, but started walking across our parking lot, “measuring” the distance of our drive through, not with a tape measure but with his footsteps! I went out and asked, “Can I help you?” and he said, “Oh I’m just double checking some measurements for the meeting.” I knew this would be trouble.

He came into the meeting wearing a hat advertising the local bar (very professional) and proclaimed, “I have a complaint that is something no one here has even thought to mention yet! I took the time and went out and measured the property, and there just simply isn’t enough room for them to have a drive through at all!” I spoke up, (and to him I’m sure I look like a spoiled Generation X kid that gets everything handed to her) but I said, ” With all due respect, I don’t think it’s fair to our business that anyone on the board discount what we have measured and have on paper, especially considering that we used a tape measure and not our gate to mark out the distance of the drive through.” (This happened at meeting 2 by the way)

We applied again. The drive through route was flawless. We found out that there had previously been a gate blocking the alleys and its position was on our property, so we went ahead and put in a gate and it was not an issue that the zoning board would have to deal with. And we prayed that the hearts of the board, particularly the chair, would be softened so that we could continue to grow the business and fulfill the business mission. At the meeting, the chair was still concerned about distance. His biggest concern was the sidewalk, as the drive-through runs right beside where the sidewalk should be. (In front of our building, the sidewalk stops and is just pavement.) Someone mentioned the idea that we needed to block off the sidewalk area. Our landlord had access to a bunch of parking blocks for a fair price and we agreed to install them to mark off the area clearly.

By the end of the meeting: The neighbors were satisfied with the installation of the gate. The two original voters still agreed with the idea. The member that was absent at the last meeting was present this time and he agreed with the proposal. The member who was against the idea of the gate felt that our installation was fair and he agreed with our proposal. And finally, the chair of the board was satisfied with the installation of the parking blocks and he, though somewhat embarrassed, voted yes as well. Unanimous!!

Letters to Lee: Human Resources

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1These are portions of my letters to Lee Shobe, the former CEO of DowBrands. He has been a major mentor throughout the start of my business, The Spotted Cow Coffeehouse. These letter may come across as a bit unprofessional, but they represent what I am learning through my adventure as a young female entrepreneur.

I currently have six employees: four with special needs and two without. I have to say that I have the most amazing staff.

I have decided that hiring is like shoe shopping. (This may be a bit feminine of an analogy.) There’s the cute ones, the supportive ones, and the expensive ones. You want to find a happy medium in all of these aspects. For cute: It doesn’t really mean that they are physically attractive but that their character is attractive. This is very important in the service business. They have to have a pleasant demeanor, or guests won’t be satisfied. For supportive: they have to be able to provide worth for the business. Even with my individuals with special needs, I look at what they can bring to the business. This is also the concept of attitude. Teamwork is a huge piece. As a team, can they support each other, and get the job done? Finally, expensive. Right now labor is my biggest expense. Mostly because many of my individuals with disabilities cannot work alone. I have not put any employee above minimum wage, but I know how many hours to give each individual. So in aspects of shoe shopping, are they worth the price? This analogy fits perfect into my mission of quality, service, and opportunity too! Cute=Quality Character, Supportive=Service Oriented, Expensive=Are they worth the opportunity.

I’ve had my challenges in human resources too. I’ve made two workers cry! (I am the offensive militant, after all) Both were special needs workers: one was skipping work and the other I pushed too hard.

For the first one, I had a talk with her a couple times. She was not showing up for work and not giving any notice that she wouldn’t be coming in. I told her she had to call. She had a phone so I thought she would be able to do that. Her mom called me that night and told me she wasn’t capable of doing that on her own. Her mom started texting me when she wasn’t coming but I wasn’t satisfied. This young woman, though she had a disability had so much potential. For some individuals with special needs, they get comfortable with never being pushed. The Spotted Cow was the first place where she could really be challenged and not pitied, but she enjoyed her comfort zone too much. I had to let her go. It was really challenging because I want to fulfill this mission to show the worth of individuals with disabilities but I can’t help everyone, and I refuse to just give individuals a job for the sake of letting them say they achieved something.

For the second young lady, Ada, I was helping her practice making change. She struggles a little bit but I was helping her practice. She just hit her breaking point. She said there’s just some things I can’t do. I told her you can do this, you just showed me you can. I’m not going to make you do it without being by your side.

So many of the individuals with disabilities find out one way or another that they can’t do everything like everyone else. Some of them, like the first young lady, have been convinced for so long that they just get too comfortable, and they are no longer teachable. They have learned that they can use their disability as an excuse. If they fail they have that justification to fall back on. Other individuals, like Ada, have the same mindset that they are different, but there is still that spark, that they don’t have to let their disability own them. It’s all about finding the spark and not pushing too far.

Another young lady, Lauren, is the epitome of my mission. She came in very timid, but she has had a wonderful work ethic from the start. She started back in May and she has flourished. She listens and does what she is told. She is dynamic and tries to come up with new ideas for the business. She is so teachable. When she started, she would just grab cups and aid in making drinks. Now she can make all of the drinks with almost no help, and she can run the cash register. There were a couple of times at school where a teacher gave her grief for being different. She came into work crying (I gave her the day off though). For her the Spotted Cow is her safe place where she knows that she isn’t just a consumer, as many individuals with disabilities are labeled. She is a genuine contributor, and I am so thankful to have her.