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Disabling Barriers

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Alicia Minns doesn't like thinking about her unlikely prospects nearly a decade ago. That was before she found her home at the Omni Hotel in downtown Richmond with the help of the Virginia Department of Rehabilitative Services.

It's not really a home, of course. Minns started out busing tables and worked her way up to waitress in the hotel's Barlowe's Terrace restaurant.

"It's hard -- when I first came here, I didn't think I was going to make it," says Minns, who suffers a learning disability that qualifies her for state assistance in locating work. "Everyone was good and nice, but I was like, I can't get this.

"Then I put my mind to it," she says.

Nine years later, that determination — and Minns' track record as an employee who can be counted on to fill any of a number of gaps in service in a pinch at the hotel — has made her a valuable employee, says Peter Sams, general manager at the Omni, one of nine organizations recognized by the state last month as part of National Disability Employment Awareness Month.

"All we've done is opened our doors to all the best people," says Sams, whose hotel relies on disabled employees for nearly 15 percent of its 220-member workforce. "I don't view them as disabilities — I view it as an inability of some people to view all people as successful members of our organization."

Jim Rothrock, head of Rehabilitative Services, wants more employers to see potential employees represented by his organization the way Sams does. A broad-shouldered, stocky man with a ready handshake, Rothrock started with the agency the hard way: after a 1965 sledding accident.

Left wheelchair-bound, he exceeded expectations for a disabled person in 1972, graduating from college and returning as a counselor to the agency that helped him.

"It was the path of least resistance — I slid into it," he says, deadpanning about his career choice. Thirty years ago, little was expected of the disabled, and they were given few options to become productive. "People with mental disabilities were institutionalized, people with physical disabilities had huge obstacles," he says, and the deaf and the blind "were just totally out of the loop."

That's changed over the years. Today his agency works to make the 25,000 disabled people around the state attractive to potential employers. He's still frustrated with an unemployment rate among disabled people that tops 60 percent.

The people his agency serves — and helps place in jobs — range from doctors to busboys. The department provides on-the-job training and job coaches to help prospective employees overcome obstacles in nearly every conceivable working environment.

There's good reason for employers to seek out disabled workers as well. A raft of retention studies over the years shows disabled employees are apt to remain in jobs for the long term. "Alicia is emblematic of that," Rothrock says of Minns' experience at the Omni.

The Omni's Sams knows this all too well: "If you're cognizant of why someone wants to work and you've eliminated the barriers, they come in with an appreciation for their position." S



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