Connecticut Dept. Of Labor — Gift of Opportunity

Circa 2006

Joe Stromondo was born with dwarfism. But dwarfism doesn’t define who he is; it is simply the name of his disability. It doesn’t take more than a five-minute conversation with the 24-year-old Stromondo, who works full time as a career advisor at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, to realize how bright and energetic he is.

Upon graduating from Trinity with a BA in philosophy two years ago, Stromondo had hoped to pursue a PhD in bioethics, with a specific focus in disability bioethics. He applied for entry to nine different PhD programs, only to be rejected by all of them. Never one to be easily discouraged, Stromondo switched his emphasis. At the urging of one of his undergraduate advisors, he applied for a position in the career services department at Trinity. He jokes that he was a perfect fit for the job because “I had a lot of experience applying to graduate schools!”

These days Stromondo spends his time helping Trinity’s students make informed choices about their educational and career goals, reviewing their applications for educational programs and critiquing their resumes and cover letters. At the end of the day, he switches focus from his students’ goals to his own as he pursues his master’s degree in public policy. In the little spare time he has, he serves as the chairman of the state independent living council’s committee on higher education outreach, and also chairs the advocacy committee for the national organization Little People of America.

“Employment is a huge issue for people with disabilities,” says Stromondo. “Understanding how employment issues work for most people enables me to form opinions on policy and to advocate more effectively for myself and others with disabilities.” He feels that if people with dwarfism are seen performing successfully in the workplace, common misperceptions will change.

Stromondo was fortunate to find an employer who did not focus on his disability, but instead saw his enormous potential. Many other job seekers with disabilities are not so lucky. It is this reality that led the Connecticut Department of Labor to launch the Gift of Opportunity Symposium.

In 2004, representatives from the Connecticut Business Leadership Network, the Governor’s Committee on the Employment of People with Disabilities and the Youth Leadership Forum met with the Connecticut Commissioner of Labor. They had all experienced difficulty getting employers interested in even talking about hiring workers with disabilities, never mind actually doing so. All parties agreed that people with disabilities are frequently overlooked as a valuable, talented and all-too-often untapped resource. To help turn the tide, they proposed a new forum that would bring together a wide range of Connecticut employers to explore how hiring people with disabilities could benefit their businesses.

Out of these discussions came the Gift of Opportunity Symposium, now an annual event that provides multiple opportunities for Connecticut businesses. Employers can observe panel discussions with companies that are active in hiring workers with disabilities, hear personal stories from the employees themselves and learn about organizations that support businesses in working successfully with employees who have disabilities. A question-and-answer session encourages employers to present all the questions they have wanted to know but may have been embarrassed to ask—about accommodations, transportation, universal design in offices, recruitment of workers with disabilities, requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), etc. Another integral part of the symposium is a disability resource fair, where employers can find qualified workers with disabilities and learn tools for keeping them.

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“We want to dispel some of the myths about what is involved in hiring and retaining qualified workers with disabilities,” explains Bridget Kemmling, Connecticut’s equal opportunity officer. “We want to show why employing people with disabilities makes good business sense. We also want to take some of the mystery out of the process for companies by connecting them with people and resources that can help them address common barriers.”

The real challenge for the Connecticut Department of Labor was developing a strategy to get employers to the table to join this conversation. They first tapped into their relationships with 17 chambers of commerce from across Connecticut, as well as the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, to help market the event to Connecticut employers.

The results so far have been impressive. The first Gift of Opportunity Symposium attracted 225 business representatives, with the number growing in subsequent years. Companies of all sizes attend, including some corporate giants. These businesses represent all facets of commerce and industry, including hospitals, banks, large retailers and manufacturers.

Jane Rath of Earnworks, an organization funded through the U. S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy to help companies recruit and screen talented applicants with disabilities to fill their job vacancies, travels around the country promoting employment opportunities for people with disabilities. Rath was a panelist at the last two Gift of Opportunity Symposiums and remarks, “It was great to be at an event with such a terrific employer turnout. I am impressed with what Connecticut has been able to accomplish in only a few years.

After a successful inaugural event in 2004, the Department of Labor wanted to further increase the size and scope of the symposium, but it lacked the funding to do so on its own. The agency decided to approach Aetna Insurance to ask if the company would join as a partner in sponsoring the event. The response was a resounding “yes.” Through Aetna’s financial support, the Department of Labor was able to make the next Gift of Opportunity Symposium free for employers, complete with breakfast and lunch for all participants. “We wanted to remove any of the typical barriers that might make an employer reluctant to attend an event of this type,” says Connecticut Labor Commissioner Patricia Mayfield. “We knew this was a challenging topic and we’d have to be creative to get companies to attend.”

Mayfield is delighted that the event has been popular beyond the agency’s expectations, providing so many employers the opportunity to learn. “I certainly think we have a responsibility to ensure that qualified workers with disabilities are afforded opportunities to work. But most employers will find that when they make the effort to employ an individual with a disability, that responsibility quickly transforms into an asset for the company.”

The 2005 symposium featured a panel of high-performing Connecticut employers who shared one common bond: they all employ workers with disabilities who have positively impacted their operations. These companies included Aetna Insurance, Pfizer, Liberty Bank, W.E. Bassett Co. and ShopRite. Ted Kennedy Jr. was the keynote speaker for the event. “We felt it was important for the business community to hear testimony from other employers about how workers with disabilities benefited their businesses, rather than just hearing it from government,” says Kemmling.

The most recent Gift of Opportunity Symposium, again sponsored by Aetna Foundation, featured keynote addresses by John Lancaster, executive director of the National Council on Independent Living, and Kyle Maynard, champion wrestler and recipient of the 2004 ESPY Award for Best Athlete with a Disability. Maynard, who was born with a condition called congenital amputation (giving him arms that end at the elbows and legs that end near his knees), was once described by a coach as “one of the most amazing athletes who has ever lived,” and is author of the book No Excuses.

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This year’s symposium highlighted recent successes in expanding employment opportunities in Connecticut for people with disabilities. For example, Jeannie Hamilton, director of organizational development for Walgreens, discussed the company’s plans to build new distribution centers in South Carolina and Connecticut and to recruit workers with severe cognitive disabilities—with an emphasis on autism—to fill one third of the positions at each facility. Both distribution centers will be fitted with custom-made high-tech equipment that will enable workers with severe cognitive disabilities to perform critical jobs.

Lana Smart, from the National Business Disability Council, talked to employers about the Emerging Leaders program, a paid summer internship program for high-performing college students with disabilities. This program gives employers who may not have an extensive track record in hiring people with disabilities the opportunity to work with talented college students, helping expose the students to the business world while also helping the companies increase the diversity in their workplaces.

Qualities that make the Gift of Opportunity Symposium unique include the strong public-private partnership created by Aetna Foundation’s financial sponsorship of the event, as well as the creative collaboration between government and the business community in planning its contents. The support the symposium has received from numerous chambers of commerce throughout Connecticut provides strong evidence for the success of this collaboration.

But the most impressive thing about the symposium is the results. Employers are showing up in large numbers to be part of the conversation about employing people with disabilities, and that has helped create a momentum for change within Connecticut.

Dave Ritz, assistant vice president and employment manager at Liberty Bank in Middletown, Connecticut, has attended the past two Gift of Opportunity symposiums and notes, “Each was a very moving experience for me, and I’m sure for the many Connecticut employers and employees who attended. It will always remain with us that hiring people with disabilities can only bring increased productivity to any organization. The bank I work for highly recommends that these symposiums continue until every employer in this state has gotten the word regarding employees with disabilities. There is no greater cause we could be fighting for in today’s employment market.”

Connecticut Labor Department officials feel that the success of the Gift of Opportunity symposium could be easily duplicated in other states. The key is to tap into the business relationships that a state already has and use those relationships to build momentum. The event doesn’t have to cost a lot of money to get started—it just requires creative planning. The first Connecticut symposium cost only about $4,000 total to implement.

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Finding a corporate sponsor in the state helps lend credibility to the event by showing that the business community buys into the goal of promoting the employment of people with disabilities. Labor Department officials hope that this increased awareness in the employer community will lead to greater opportunities for other talented job seekers with disabilities— like the opportunities afforded Joe Stromondo.

Stromondo notes, “You never know what you’re getting into, whether you are the job applicant or the employer. Fear is the biggest barrier to anything in your life. My best advice to prospective employers is to release yourself from your fears.”

by Mike Bartley

For questions about the Gift of Opportunity Symposium, contact Mike Bartley at 800.263.6513

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