State-led panel discusses advantages of hiring people with disabilities

Marie Havenga • Oct 24, 2017 at 12:00 PM

SPRING LAKE — Judge Richard Bernstein knows what it's like to live with a disability and how difficult it can be to land a job.

Sometimes because of prejudice. Many times, because of fear.

While attending a job fair at Western Michigan University, 65 law firms interviewed Bernstein, who was born blind.

“I didn't get a single call-back,” said Bernstein, who learned to conquer his disability by memorizing documents and minute details of legal cases.

He's now serving as a justice on the Michigan Supreme Court, and joining Lt. Gov. Brian Calley in the MI Hidden Talent Tour, a rallying cry for businesses to hire people with disabilities. The tour stopped at the Spring Lake Country Club on Monday for a luncheon panel discussion with Spring Lake and Grand Haven Rotary Club members.

Calley has been promoting this cause for more than two years.

“There's a whole group of people out there that have so much to offer that have a hard time getting into a position where they can provide it,” Calley said, noting that employers are having a difficult time finding qualified people to fill available openings. “There are dedicated, determined, innovative, creative people that you're missing in your workforce. That's what the Hidden Talent Tour is all about. We're hoping someday the title is very ironic and that it's no longer hidden.”

Calley recalled a story of a young man with autism who interned for a company. People who suffer from autism are known for excelling at math and other detailed work. He finished six months worth of auditing work in two weeks, saving the company $300,000 in the process.

Calley stressed that hiring people with disabilities “is not charity, it's smart business.”

Bernstein said many other states want to emulate Hidden Talent principles. He even gave a presentation for the United Nations, with more than 150 countries present.

“This program has no bounds in terms of the people it's going to effect,” he said.

Calley noted that many times when a company makes small changes to accommodate a disabled person, it can benefit the entire organization.

Because a blind employee couldn't read package labels, the employer changed to a color-coded system. The result? The entire organization became more efficient and productive, Calley said.

The State of Michigan is taking a lead and setting an example in this initiative with a program called Project Search, which is sporting an impressive 75 percent employment rate for folks with disabilities. Calley said typically only about 10 percent of people with disabilities are employed.

The state has even dropped its requirement that employees need to hold a high school diploma. But, Calley noted, all employees must be qualified to perform the tasks required of them.

“The person still has to be able to do the same job as anybody else,” he said.

Although the state doesn't offer financial incentives for hiring disabled people, Calley said it does facilitate no-cost consulting services to guide employers and show them the many benefits of augmenting their workforce with people from different backgrounds.

Paula Perkins, talent acquisition manager for Herman Miller, was also a member of the panel. She said businesses can find a wealth of talent by opening their search.

“It is so hard to hire right now,” Perkins said. “It's going to get harder. You need to look at all available hidden talent pools that are out there.”

Panelist Don Dees, business relations consultant manager for Michigan Rehabilitation Services, said people with disabilities can bring a new perspective to an organization.

“This is not about meeting a quota,” he said. “A lot of what they bring are solutions we have never even thought of before. I've seen that time and time again.”

Bernstein said people with disabilities just want a chance, and they'll typically expend much extra effort in gratitude.

“We go through life with so much rejection, if someone gives us a chance, we will not let them down,” he said.

Many people with disabilities have an almost uncanny appreciation and zest for life, according to Bernstein, and bring much enthusiasm and energy to the workplace.

“People with disabilities know what we can accomplish and know what we can achieve,” he said. “It's non-disabled people that simply have to give us a chance.”

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