An Alternate Door

Disability Inclusion in the Workplace

Shattering Preconceptions

“Not only is hiring people with disabilities the right thing to do, it’s also good for our businesses,” said Michelle Grimm, Senior Human Resources Manager for the Marvin company, and keynote speaker at the Manufacturer’s Appreciation Luncheon on October 20, 2022 at Legacy Event Center.

She started her address by asking attendees to close their eyes and picture a disabled person. Then, she asked the audience a handful of questions about what they had envisioned. “Did that person look different than you,” she queried. “Did they have an assistive device, a wheelchair, a walker, a hearing aid, a guide dog? Did you picture that person at work?”

Although Googling “person with a disability” brings up pictures of people with assistive devices, Michelle reminded the audience that less than fifty percent of people with disabilities have assistive devices.

“Today, I’m going to try to shatter those images and replace them with stories of real people who are working with a disability at Marvin,” Michelle said.

She began her career as an employment specialist focusing on people with mental illness. “From the very beginning, the image in my head looked different because, from the outside, every single one of my clients looked like you and me. They could all work. Some needed accommodations, but they could all work,” she said.

Room for Improvement

Michelle said working as an employment specialist helping disabled people in those early days was difficult. “Seventy-five percent of them wanted to work, but only twenty-five percent were actually employed,” she reported.

The percentage has improved since then with about thirty-seven percent finding employment. Progress is being made, but Michelle questioned whether we are doing enough. “The overall labor force participation rate is above sixty percent,” Michelle said. “When you compare that to the thirty-seven percent of disabled people who are working, we still have a long way to go. We have significant room for improvement.”

After many years as an employment specialist, Michelle transitioned to “the other side of the desk.” Instead of helping people find jobs, she found herself in the position of helping an employer find and hire employees.

When she started at Marvin in early 2020, one of her first priorities was starting a disability inclusion program. She came into that position having successfully started a disability inclusion program at two other companies, both of which are still active.

Helping disabled people find employment hits close to home for Michelle. She is mother to three children, one with autism, one with mental illness, and one with another disability.

An Alternate Door

Long ago, Michelle learned the importance of creating an alternate door for disabled people to enter the world of employment. “The application systems we use as employers can be a hindrance. Sometimes they get in the way of people with disabilities. My job is to create a different door.”

Michelle started by reaching out to service providers, letting them know she was interested in hiring people with disabilities. “Service providers will always take that call,” she said. “These relationships are what creates that alternative door. I don’t need another system. I don’t need another process. All I need is a telephone, an email, and myself. Once I have established these relationships, service providers start contacting me. I literally have to do no more work. They will say, ‘please come see me.’”

Although for most employees, the first step to employment is submitting an application form, for people with disability, Michelle has found that the application is often the last step.

“Eventually we do get to that pesky application, but it’s not the first or even the second step,” she explained. “Usually, it’s the last step I use to check the box. Part of the reason is because I want to keep the person in the center. I want to create an experience that makes them want to work for Marvin. I want to make sure that they are comfortable and that they feel supported.”

Employee Profiles

Michelle shared stories of three disabled Marvin employees. All had different circumstances, but all came through that alternate door. (Note: names have been changed to preserve confidentiality.)

The first employee she described was “Joe,” the child of another Marvin employee. Although Joe had cognitive impairment and anxiety, he wanted to work at Marvin. It was the place where his parents worked and where most of the town worked.  “He wanted to be where everyone was,” she said.

Michelle was contacted by a service provider who let her know that Joe wanted to work for Marvin. The service provider described what Joe was really good at and what was difficult form him.

Instead of starting with an application, the first step was to give Joe a tour of the facility. After the tour they discussed the job, asked Joe what he was good at and what he wanted to do. Joe started as part-time employee, ten hours a week. He performed a job that Marvin needed done and which he enjoyed doing. About a month after Joe started, his supervisor came to Michelle and said he was glad to have Joe on his team, reporting that Joe made his team better and that he was happy working for a company that employed Joe. “I have a loved one in my life who is just like Joe, and now I have hope they’ll be able to get a job, too,” he said.

The second employee Michelle talked about was Russ, a man with autism and a person who had never been successful in any job. He heard about Marvin, its culture, and how they treat their employees. He decided to try working one more time. He also walked through an “alternate door,” working a part-time shift, 25-30 hours a week. The only accommodation he needed was, fifteen minutes notice if he was going to be moved to a different job in the plant. That gave him the time he needed to pause, focus, and be successful performing a new task. After seven months, Russ asked to work full-time. He went from being someone who had not been able to keep a job to someone who is able to hold down a full-time job, all made possible by one simple accommodation.

The third employee Michelle talked about Susan, a woman with mental illness. In the past, she would start a job, her mental illness flared up, she wouldn’t come to work, and she would lose her job. When Michelle noticed that something was going on with this particular employee, she reached out to a service provider that she knew the employee had a connection with and asked for help. The service provider stepped in, and we worked through our normal accommodation process. Now, Susan is gone one or two days a month when things aren’t going well for her, but then she comes back to work. Instead of having to replace her, we allow her to take the time away that she needs and then return to work. We have found that employees who are able to address their personal needs are much more dedicated and loyal employees.

At Marvin, we keep people at the center of what we do. Our disability inclusion program is just an extension of that. It’s the right thing to do because it impacts our communities, and our employees. Doing the right thing is one of our five company values.

While we aspire to create beautiful windows and doors, we also aspire to create better ways of living for our communities, for our customers, and for our employees. We are guided by a spirit of possibility, just like everybody who walks through that alternative door.

Michelle ended her keynote with words of encouragement. “I hope you can take that spirit back to your organizations and spread this spirit farther. We all do better when we ALL do better.”

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