If you’ve ever visited the headquarters of Minnesota Diversified Industries off Broadway Street in Minneapolis, chances are high you were cheerfully welcomed and helped by our office services specialist, Kristie. If your organization has ever done business with MDI, you’ve possibly met another friendly face in our safety coordinator, Steve, who keeps us aligned and knowledgeable in best safety practices as employees work side by side on the warehouse floor.
Head north to our MDI location in Cohasset, and you’ll find the same warmth and commitment to our work from every employee, including Austin. Austin originally joined the MDI team as a production worker and today, enjoys his current role as a job coach, where he helps his coworkers identify their employment goals and strengthen the skills needed to achieve them.
What do Kristie, Steve and Austin have in common? They each have a disability, and MDI is lucky to have them on the team.
About half of our employees are people with disabilities. Our social enterprise vision is meaningful employment for all people with disabilities — and we’ve been doing it for 59 years in Minnesota. It is the hard work and positive attitudes of our employees that make MDI the wonderful, one-of-a-kind place it is, and embody daily a personal philosophy that I have long held: to never underestimate what someone can do until you give them a chance.
Many accepted the opportunity to participate in the Unified Work program powered by MDI, where participants learn essential career building tips while strengthening the skills and interpersonal attributes needed to succeed in the workplace. Unified Work is a large driver of MDI’s goal to impact 2,500 lives by 2025, and since its inception, has grown significantly beyond its initial audience of MDI employees. Today, Unified Work classes have reached hundreds of employees from other organizations across Minnesota, along with people with other barriers to employment. Unified Work has made greater opportunities possible for people with disabilities to access meaningful employment.
To me, “meaningful” is the key word, particularly as we celebrate National Disability Employment Awareness Month, which seeks to commemorate the many contributions of people with disabilities to America’s workplaces and economy. While Minnesota continues to be ahead of the national trend when it comes to employing people with disabilities, there is still much work to be done. There are more than 100,000 Minnesotans with disabilities who are ready and motivated to work yet have not been given a fair shot at employment.
For employed individuals with a disability, we must ask: How many of them have jobs they truly enjoy? Do their roles give them opportunities to strengthen and use learned skills? Are they able to work the number of hours they’d like?
These questions all help determine whether a role is a good “fit” for each person, instead of simply filling a position. Asking these questions also benefits motivated businesses with a desire to employ people with disabilities. By proactively understanding what each prospective employee can contribute to your organization, what work they enjoy doing and any needed accommodations, your workplace can become a more inclusive and successful environment.
This National Disability Employment Awareness Month and beyond, I encourage fellow employers to approach their hiring and continued employment of people with disabilities in creative, open-minded ways, being unafraid to seek out more information and resources, like MDI’s Unified Work Academy and employer consulting services.
By having your organization’s leadership understand the importance of meaningful employment for people with disabilities and taking steps to thoughtfully engage this valuable and underutilized talent pool, you can avoid the misfortune of presuming a person’s ability to succeed by offering them something basic, but powerful — a chance.
Jeanne Eglinton is the director of employment services at MDI.