Students learn disabilities don't need to hinder careers


Published: Tuesday, October 29, 2013 at 11:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, October 29, 2013 at 11:00 a.m.

Like they do every morning when the call comes over the intercom, the employees of the Sam's Club gathered in the wholesale store's cafe area. But on this recent morning, as they did their S-A-M-S-C-L-U-B cheer, five high school students joined in.

The students, part of the High School/High Tech program, visited the store at 2801 NW 13th St. to learn about careers with the company as part of Disability Employment Awareness Month.

High School/High Tech provides “opportunities for students with all types of disabilities to explore exciting careers in science, mathematics, and technology,” according to the U.S. Department of Labor website.

Some of the students on the tour struggle with autism and the others have learning disabilities.

Sam's Club manager Tameka Goodwin led the teens around the store through 34 aisles of groceries, flat-screen TVs, pet food, office supplies and more. The students followed her like ducklings through a maze of sights and sounds.

Some curious shoppers stopped and glanced at the group. But they were only interested for a moment because walnuts were finally back in stock.

In the meat department, the students stretched black hairnets over their heads so they could go behind the counter and see how the associates slice the sirloin and cut the chuck.

At the end of the tour they donned red aprons to see how the bakery frosts the cupcakes.

Goodwin said Sam's Club reached out to the High School/High Tech program as a way to show support for the community.

Melissa Merrill, the Alachua County senior program coordinator for High School/ High Tech, said the goal of the program is to have the students graduate with standard diplomas and either go on to some sort of post-secondary education or a vocational program.

The high-tech part of the name comes from the fact that many of these students are found to have a talent for technical careers, and so this career field is encouraged.

But she wants the students to find something they're passionate about. The program tries to give the students real-world job shadowing, site tours and access to internships.

The program is beneficial to employers, too, because they may not know how to reach out to this specific labor pool.

Some employers may be wary of hiring anyone who might need an accommodation at work, even though the American's with Disabilities Act, known commonly as ADA, was passed in 1990.

A lot of this comes from misinformation about the law, said Jeanne B. Repetto, a professor at the University of Florida who teaches a class called “Disability and Community Involvement in Employment.”

Repetto said most accommodations for a disabled worker are not as intensive as people think. Many times a person needs something small, like a sound amplifier on their phone.

For accommodations that cost more, businesses can apply for tax incentives to help with the price.

Repetto said employers may think that their insurance will increase if they hire a disabled worker. But worker's compensation insurance is based on the hazards relative to the operation of the business, not the individual's personal liabilities, she said.

Employers can visit the Job Accommodation Network at AskJan.org for one-on-one guidance on following the ADA and hiring people with disabilities.

There are many benefits for companies to consider hiring individuals with disabilities. The best reason is the positive effect it has for the company's relationship with the community, Repetto said.

Personnel manager Janice Cartwright fielded students' questions as the tour ended. She said the tour was about more than the students frosting cupcakes and exploring the store.

“It shows the individuals that come in that no matter what the struggles in life are, there is always someone to take them on,” she said.

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