• Traci Shaw

Empowering Career Growth: How business can encourage employees with disabilities

Updated: Feb 5, 2020

“Not a lot of companies give you the opportunity to work, especially when you have a disability. Not a lot of people take that risk. That’s what I like about Relay. Their main goal is to give someone like me, who has a disability, the opportunity to grow. Otherwise, how are we going to move forward in life and advance if people don’t open up doors like that?”

– Maria Chanocua Garcia, receptionist at Relay Resources.

Maria was born with Albinism, a disorder that affects skin pigmentation and can cause vision impairment. As a result, Maria is legally blind with limited vision. After high school, she entered community college but withdrew when the reading coursework became overwhelming. It was a struggle to find work. She eventually returned to school for a degree in Business Office Administration, hoping to one day find a meaningful job with a livable wage. Maria says it took her a while to complete the coursework because of her vision, but her family was always supportive—her mother especially. “She would say I needed to open more doors. That I couldn’t just give up,” Maria says, recalling her mother’s encouragement. “And I’m thankful for that.”

Maria shows off the Relay Resources reception lobby.

In the summer of 2016, Maria started at Relay Resources in administrative staffing. “I started as a floater, helping to fill in where I was needed, which gave me the opportunity to be trained in other areas,” remembers Maria. “I was then able to jump in and apply for the reception position where I had some working knowledge, and I’ve been able to keep growing from there.” It’s a role that challenges her to learn, adapt, and work with new people every day. And, as Maria says, it’s the job she’s always wanted. “I love that you can work and learn at the same time, because you’re getting trained by people who are already doing the job, while getting feedback and advice from others based on their work experience. Learning and picking up from them helps you grow as an employee. It’s a challenge, because of my vision, but it’s worth it.”

Learning someone’s interests and where they see their own growth potential can encourage employee engagement, which builds a stronger employee and organization. “I think I’ve learned a lot,” says Maria. “You learn from every situation because not every situation is going to be the same. You pick up what does and doesn’t work. I’ve gotten better at multitasking and learned that sometimes it’s ok to slow down. And it’s ok to ask for help. Amy, Maria’s boss, is always telling us how she wants us to grow. For me, I’m comfortable now in the receptions area, but I still run into things where I’ll ask questions and ask for advice. And I think I’ve become more comfortable with that too.”

Receptionists Tei-Onna and Maria help prepare for an office event.

Reception plays an important role in an organization as it covers a wide range of projects and can help keep the pulse of day-to-day interactions with employees, residents, and customers. Amy Julkowski, operations manager at Relay, supervises Maria and has seen firsthand the impact of having the right person in the right position. “We recognized Maria’s potential and ambition, and knew she’d excel at helping people apply for jobs and housing,” says Amy. “One of my objectives is to help my team members grow. That’s ultimately what we want to promote, to have career paths and choices at Relay. I count on Maria for a lot of things – being at the reception desk, being front and center, the customer service that she provides – but she also helps me look at things through a disability lens and brings things to my attention that I may not have been aware of.”

Amy notes that Maria has been a valuable asset to the reception team by bringing in her own unique perspectives to situations. “We’ve had instances where someone with a disability may come in for an interview and have a family member or care giver in the lobby. Maria observed that in some cases the candidate might be more comfortable with some level of support in the interview room with them. Now, we work with our Senior Vocational Specialist to accommodate as needed to ensure positive experiences for those candidates.”

Being able to help make those connections and help people is what Maria enjoys about her work. “I think the best thing about working for a company like Relay is that you’re learning and growing,” says Maria. “You can advocate and let others know that you understand they are going through a disability. I think that’s where a lot of people can connect; when they know that there are other people in their company that also have a disability or barrier. I can relate because I have a disability myself.”

When asked what advice she might give to other managers supervising an employee with a disability, Amy says it’s important to try to see the position through the perspective of the employee. “Don’t treat employees any differently due to their disability,” she notes. “It’s important to be aware of a disability in case accommodations are needed to help someone grow and perform their best, but don’t let that stop you from hiring someone and seeing their growth potential.”

Maria agrees. “It would be so good for more companies to be open to possibilities like Relay has been,” says Maria. “Not everyone is willing to work with someone with a disability. Many times, they don’t feel like they know what to do with you or what you’re capable of. Like Amy always says, sometimes you just need the opportunity; you need the chance. That’s one of the main reasons why I’m here and it makes me want to stay. I know I’ve learned a lot in two years working here and I know that I can learn a lot more if I continue to work at Relay.”

In the end, it’s not just about working. It’s about Working. Together.

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