“Marching over the cliff” is how special-needs parents describe the prospect of high school ending and time to move on. Our daughter was lucky to have a soft landing, falling into a career of fruits and vegetables.
People are always surprised when they learn Noni has a job. That’s right, she cannot read, or distinguish a dime from a quarter, or cross the street by herself, but she can work. In fact, she has worked for the same employer for nine years.
Invariably, the next question is, “What does she do?”
Lots of things very well, thank you. She works in the produce department of our local grocery store, Heinen’s, where co-workers have trained her to help with a variety of tasks.
She drops oranges into the fresh squeezer, for example, and refills dressings on the salad bar. She loves, loves, loves plucking grapes off stems for salad making, and she’s become masterful at it.
Performing these duties, which others may find mundane, are challenging and satisfying for her, and free her co-workers to focus on higher-level work. A win-win.
Noni dispels the stereotype that people with disabilities who work in grocery stores are baggers. She is not high functioning enough to be a bagger, which requires motor skills she doesn’t have, as well as cognitive skills to know not to pack the milk on top of the bread.
It takes dexterity and aptitude to bag groceries, and not everyone has the ability.
Today’s high school graduates with developmental and intellectual disabilities yearn to work. And hiring them is simply not that hard. Enlightened companies are already doing it, riding the next wave of diversity in the workplace and reporting elevated levels of empathy in their organizations.
How about your company? Is it hiring? Have you asked? Could you make it happen?
Brothers Tom and Jeff Heinen lead a family-owned supermarket chain with stores in Cleveland and Chicago, and are known for hiring employees with disabilities.
Their recipe is surprisingly simple: Set them up to succeed. Adapt jobs to their strengths. Surround them with “natural supports in the workplace,” another fancy phrase for “caring co-workers.”
In Noni, Heinen’s has produced an engaged employee, the best kind. She sees Heinen’s shoppers all around town and exchanges a friendly wave or hello. Sometimes I ask, “Who’s that?” or “How do you know that person?”
With a strut and a smile, she answers proudly, “That’s my customer!”