Employers should be bold and brave

By Kelly Fredrickson, Creative, Brand and Agency Management Executive at Bank of America | 

This article was originally published on LinkedIn.

At the 2017 World Winter Games in Austria, Bank of America and Special Olympics collaborated on a series of Unified Talks. The mission was to amplify the voices of Special Olympic athletes and to raise awareness of the benefits of creating a more inclusive world. Ian Harper, an athlete leader and Service Quality Director for Aspire in the United Kingdom joined us on the panel and collaborated on this article to bring the conversation to a broader audience. We brought together business leaders, athlete leaders, and Sargent Shriver International Global Messengers and we discussed the barriers we face in creating an inclusive playing field not only in sports, but equally as important, in employment.

We called this Unified Talk: Sports – a Foundation for Workplace Inclusion. Work and sport have many parallels – leadership, determination, hard-work, long hours.  Special Olympics has been providing opportunities for athletes for almost 50 years. Millions of athletes and their families have been positively affected, as have the many volunteers and unified partners. Despite these parallels and the many documented achievements of Special Olympic athletes, the workplace has a lot of catching up to do. The majority of adults with intellectual disabilities (ID) are unemployed or underemployed.

At Bank of America we have a team called Support Services that employs over 300 people with disabilities, including ID, and we have been providing meaningful employment to this team for over 25 years. Our employees are provided competitive wages and full company benefits and each employee is given the opportunity to develop professionally. The success stories are endless; long-term careers, marriages, births, lasting friendships; all of it possible because they have found meaningful work and are valued for their ability and not discounted because of their intellectual challenges.  During the Unified Talk, I was honored to participate and share what I feel is a success story, and one that can easily be replicated at other companies. There is very little attrition from Support Services and the community the employees have created together has an atmosphere of possibility.

As one of our employees, Mark, will tell you, “There’s a difference between a job and a career. With a career, you wake up and say – Oh man, it’s a good day!” I was joined on the panel by Ian Harper, a Special Olympic athlete from Great Britain. He holds a director position in a firm that helps to place people with intellectual disabilities, and he works to support the employers as well as the employees. Ian has been an eloquent and convincing disabled campaigner all of his life, especially for people with ID. His top goal is to see more people with ID employed in all kinds of businesses. Ian will passionately tell you that, “Employers should be bold and brave. They should take the worthwhile risks to employ people with ID in their companies. The rewards to both the companies and the person with ID will be life-changing for the better. Employers who are currently employing people with ID need to spread the word, raise awareness and challenge other companies to do the same. People with ID make a positive impact on others around them as they always think positively about the company they work for which in turn brings huge benefit to other employees. I want to challenge companies, anywhere in the world, to take on the people with ID and give them the opportunity to flourish in the workplace.”

Another panelist, John Kelly, is a leader at SourceAmerica. They are a company that helps talented individuals with significant disabilities (including ID) find jobs. Their Pathways to Careers program is currently being piloted in 4 states and features an in-depth “discovery’ period to zero in on the skills, talents and desires of individuals with disabilities leading to paid internship opportunities. These internships provide the person with ID or other disability the chance to demonstrate the value they bring to an employer and to try multiple jobs which ensures a good match for everyone involved. A high percentage of these internships (matching or exceeding that of the non-disabled population) are converted to full time employment.

Brightfield Shadi, a Special Olympics Sargent Shriver International Global Messenger, co-moderated with Chris Hull, journalist and communications volunteer for Special Olympics. Together they led a great conversation about the abilities that people with ID bring to the workplace and the atmosphere they create when they are a part of it. Brightfield talked about the value of sport to teach discipline and teamwork, and shared that his experience with Special Olympics has helped him to become a coach and a teaching assistant. This has enabled him to help others with ID, to build his own confidence, and to find tremendous joy and success.

David Egan spoke up from the audience. David is a Special Olympic athlete and a Sargent Shriver International Global Messenger, and has worked at Booz Allen Hamilton for 20 years. This year, he was accepted as a Joseph P. Kennedy Fellow and spent time on Capitol Hill serving on the Ways and Means Committee advocating for people with intellectual disabilities. David was so successful during his fellowship that he recently accepted a job working in the SourceAmerica government affairs team which affords him the opportunity to advocate full time. He challenged us to be more open to the talents of people with intellectual disabilities, and his talent and experience is proof that we should listen carefully to him.

There is a lack of awareness regarding how companies can benefit from hiring people with disabilities, and an additional lack of understanding that diversity and inclusion efforts can make a company stronger and should be done not out of charity, but because it makes good business sense. People with ID are often ideal employees – dedicated, optimistic, team-focused, and energetic. And, importantly, when you design a workplace for people with disabilities you improve the environment for all employees.

Marc, an audience member, put it all on the line for us as he spoke from his heart, “As a parent of a child with an intellectual disability you face 40 years of uncertainty for your child. Most children with ID age out of programs at 22, and one of the major misconceptions of people with ID is that they are ‘endless children.’ Instead, children with ID become adults with ID and they have the same dreams of earning a living, providing for family and building a life that we all have. But at 22 with few career employment opportunities, there are very few visible ways for them to achieve this.”

Marc and everyone in the audience at the Unified Talk implored us to broaden the conversation and engage with more businesses so that more people with ID will be able to find meaningful work. At Bank of America we have committed to sharing a playbook that we our Support Services team built to help businesses identify opportunities for employees with ID. We are continually learning about how best to support this community through training, employee benefits and career development. We want to share how we’ve done it – and while we are proud to have built a highly productive, engaged and dedicated team of 300, we know there is much more to be done.

Next week, I will be leading a panel discussion at the Social Enterprise Alliance Summit in Los Angeles called “What it takes for meaningful employment: How social enterprises are supporting the disability community”.  This workshop will be a case study on how Bank of America’s Support Services team is working with partners to help promote opportunities for the disability community tied to meaningful employment.  We will be sharing our story and using the playbook to guide a discussion that we hope will encourage other companies to take on the rewarding challenge of building a more inclusive workplace. I will be joined on the panel by Debi Anderson from Special Olympics, Mark Feinour who expertly leads the Support Services team, Tommy Fields a long-time employee of Support Services and a Special Olympic athlete as well as David Friedman, founder of Autonomy Works a company in the Chicago area that is doing incredible work to provide jobs for people with autism and other disabilities.

Please take a look at the Bank of America Support Services Playbook; we are excited to share it and we'd like to invite anyone interested in seeing us in action to come and visit us at Support Services in one of our three locations: Newark, Delaware; Belfast, Maine or Dallas, Texas.

As Ian Harper so wonderfully articulates, “In an inclusive workplace it feels like there are no barriers to what the people with ID can achieve, their colleagues can understand them without prejudice just because they have ID.  Please, hire them and give them the same wage as other non-disabled colleagues, so they can contribute to their communities. Give them the skills, opportunity and the freedom to enjoy life both at work and beyond in their communities. People with ID have creativity which is unique and they more often than not think outside the box. People with ID are among the most hardworking, reliable and consistent on performance of their work. What’s more, people with ID improve culture and discipline within businesses, making the end result a happier place to work.”

I was honored to collaborate on this article with Ian Harper, his voice needs to be amplified, and we are both so grateful to you for both reading and sharing.



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