Luncheon unites special needs employees with business leaders

It is important to think and learn about what people with disabilities can do, instead of assuming they can't do anything, business owners and community leaders were told at a special luncheon Friday.

Creating employment opportunities for people with special needs could positively impact local businesses, communities and their employees, MeLissa Boler, co-founder and president of the Bridges Training Foundation told them. For example, Bridges clients served lunch and mingled with guests at the lunch sponsored by foundation board member Shelley Hemphill and her husband Todd Hemphill.

It was the Bridges clients working the luncheon who came up with the idea to reserve a seat at each table for themselves to ensure they were able to visit with each person at the luncheon, said board member Alexandra Allred.

“Disability, what does that mean to you? Is it Down syndrome? Is it Autism? As a business owner, is it liability?” Boler asked, pointing to a typical handicapped parking sign and explaining that even though this was the symbol most people equate to disability, it is by far not a representation of the majority of people with disabilities. “You probably already have that. You may already have a disabled worker who just hasn't disclosed it or been diagnosed.”

Diabetes is one of many conditions considered a disability, she explained, but many employers work around diabetic workers’ limitations regularly. The same could be done for other disabilities, she said.

Eric Swanson, a manager at Walgreens, said his store already employed a person with disabilities when he took the job about a year ago.

“I was a little scared, but the more I got to know him, the more able he was,” Swanson said.

The employee has responsibilities to fulfill each shift and is held to the same standard as an employee without disabilities, he said. And his always positive and eager attitude affects other workers, he said.

“It motivates your other employees,” he said.

The foundation also provides resources to his store to help handle any issues that come up, he said.

“They will not leave someone with you. If you have an issue, call them and they will come out and retrain,” Swanson said, encouraging anyone with questions about his experience employing a person with disabilities to stop by the store and ask him.

Many people with special needs thrive at jobs that include a lot of repetition, like filing, that normally have a high turn over rate and have a real desire to work hard, Boler said.

“Our clients want the same things other people do. Friends, somewhere to go and money to spend,” she said, adding that having a job is part of a person's identity and gaining employment is a big step toward building confidence.

Businesses can help by opening jobs or internships to those with disabilities, allowing a Bridges client to shadow an employee to learn skills or even just providing a job description of a position that might be open in the future so the foundation can add those skills into the pre-job hunt training their clients receive.

Tim Giese, with SEW Euro Drive, said his company, which builds electric motors, started a program to employ four workers with special needs almost two years ago.

“It was amazing the quality of the work they do,” Giese said. “At the beginning, I was thinking, ‘What will we do with these guys?’ Now I am thinking, ‘what will we do without them?’”

The company is considering transferring some of the positions, currently paid through the temp budget, to part time or full time positions to allow the workers to stay after the two-year program is over, he said. The four started the program by assembling cardboard boxes and doing shop housekeep, but some have moved on to helping put the product together, he said.

“That is just the tangible things. The intangible things, those are the best things,” he said.

Other employees, some of whom were skeptical at the start, have built relationships though common lunch breaks, he said. The workers with special needs have helped create a happier work place, which helps with retaining employees, he said.

To those who are on the fence, Giese encouraged them be a part of changing how people see those with disabilities.

“It is the community that has to make the change, we cannot wait,” he said.

All business owners are leaders, Boler reminded those at the lunch, and part of leading is teaching by example.

“We have to show the community there is a way,” she said.

To find out more about business opportunists with Bridges, contact Boler at 469-672-6902 or


Contact Bethany Kurtz at 469-517-1450 or email Follow her on Facebook at or on Twitter @bethmidlomirror.