CINCINNATI -- As the mother of a 17-year-old son who has autism, there’s nothing theoretical or murky and unclear about the obstacles faced by people with disabilities for Terri Hogan.
She knows what kind of challenges her son Bayley copes with every day of his life and she has taken some important steps toward helping him and others who struggle with similar issues.
“I’ve been involved with the special needs community ever since our son was diagnosed” at age 2, said Hogan, CEO and owner of family-owned Contemporary Cabinetry East in Blue Ash.
One of the issues she’s deeply immersed in some 15 years later is driving home the message that many disabled people make good employees at a time when small businesses like hers are looking for reliable people who are committed to showing up on time and putting in an honest day’s work.
A little more than a year ago, Hogan hired Mike Ames, of Wyoming, who has Down syndrome. He has proved to be a valuable member of the workforce at a company that has nearly 80 employees who produce custom cabinetry and woodwork for commercial customers throughout the region, across the country and around the world.
Ames, 27, operates a banding machine that finishes the edges of some of the material that Contemporary Cabinetry uses in its manufacturing process.
“Hiring Mike was the best business decision I ever made because Mike is a role model for all of our employees. He set the standard high and then raised them higher. I think he made everyone work harder after seeing him work,” said Hogan, who runs the business with her husband, Paul.
Hogan’s mission is to make it clear to other small-business owners that there are plenty of people like Mike who can make important contributions on the job and that hiring them isn’t a high-risk proposition.
The primary message is simple: “I want to take the ‘dis’ out of disabilities and focus on their abilities. People with disabilities have abilities,” she said.
“Employers stress about what kind of accommodations they would have to make and what kind of special tools they would have to put in place and how they would go about training someone,” said Hogan, who believes that many of these questions can get blown out of proportion.
“Everyone needs to know that it’s not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do,” Hogan said.
In many cases, people with disabilities are accompanied by “job coaches” who will stay on the job with the employee while he or she learns what’s expected, Hogan said. The coach’s salary is typically paid by an agency that works with the disabled, she said.
Hogan’s experience as Bayley’s mother and Mike’s employer is one of the reasons she has become a high-profile advocate in the “Diverse By Design” pilot program created by the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber.
The chamber, which has 4,000 members, was selected last fall to participate in a program designed to develop disability inclusion strategies. Also selected was the 4,000-member South Dakota Retail Foundation and the Washington, D.C., chapter of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization, a global business network with 160 chapters in 50 countries.
The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) and its Office of Disability Employment Policy provided some money and technical assistance to help the three small-business organizations establish programs designed to zero in on what the DOL calls “the intersection of diversity and disability” in the U.S. economy.
Statistics from the federal agency make it clear that disabled people have a tough time finding work.
For people without disabilities, nearly 70 percent of the U.S. population 16 and older participates in the U.S. labor force, the DOL said in statistics released for July. But that percentage plummets to just over 20 percent for people with disabilities.
The country’s overall unemployment rate stood at 4.9 percent last month compared to 11.1 percent for the disabled, the DOL said.
In an effort to improve those numbers, the chamber sponsored two well-attended workshops earlier this month to support hiring people with disabilities. Events with similar objectives are scheduled in September and October.
Besides company representatives and people who work in human resources, the early-August sessions also attracted people who work with the disabled in a number of agencies and parents of disabled people who want their children to have job opportunities, said Mary Stagaman, the chamber’s senior inclusion advisor.
The sessions earlier this month and the two scheduled in the fall were designed to “raise awareness about the opportunities that exist for local businesses” that hire people with disabilities, Stagaman said.
Stagaman pointed out that hiring people with disabilities could improve a company’s employee retention rate and have a positive impact on the bottom line.
For example, federal tax credits are available to companies that hire people who have received Social Security benefits in the 60-day period before they are hired or those who are referred by a vocational rehabilitation agency. Credits also are available for making modifications to the workplace that make it more accessible for a disabled person.
Other programs provide incentives for hiring disabled veterans. One program covers a portion of veterans’ wages; another helps businesses attract workers and offers a subsidy for on-the-job training.
U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot, the Westwood Republican who chairs the House Small Business Committee, heard about Hogan, her company and Ames when she addressed the committee earlier this year. Chabot has said Hogan’s comments were one reason he became a co-sponsor of legislation that would allow disabled people to save more of the money they earn without jeopardizing Medicaid and Social Security benefits.
The ABLE to Work Act has been assigned to committee.
Stagaman said she’s hoping for a strong turnout for the next two events in the pilot program focused on broadening the definition of inclusion and encouraging small businesses to hire the disabled.
Macy’s will host a Sept. 26 event at its corporate headquarters Downtown about how hiring people with disabilities can benefit a business.
The keynote speaker will be Enquirer sports columnist Paul Daugherty. His most recent book is “An Uncomplicated Life: A Father’s Memoir of His Exceptional Daughter,” which revolves around his relationship with his daughter, who has Down syndrome.
On Oct. 17, Stagaman said, the chamber is seeking companies that are willing to allow disabled people to shadow employees to learn about the company, its workplace and what’s expected on the job.
“This is all about planting the seeds,” Stagaman said.
Hogan plans to hire other employees who have disabilities. As for Bayley, she said, that’s a difficult question.
“We don’t know if it would be best for him to work for our company or for someone else. A lot of times kids act differently around their parents than they do with other people,” said Hogan, describing a behavior that’s hardly unique to a 17-year-old with autism.