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Houston, We Have Your Solution

In our world of work, the Disability Solutions team has the opportunity to meet some amazing people. Whether it be a jobseeker with a disability seeking their next career, a veteran transitioning back to the civilian world, a passionate employer looking to diversify their workforce, or a talent partner, who shares our mission to changes minds and change lives when it comes to the employment of people with disabilities.

In 2013, while kicking off the Pepsi ACT initiative to proactively recruit, hire and retain talent with disabilities, I first met Cornelius Booker, a Regional Navigator at Workforce Solutions in Houston. The first thing I remember about Cornelius is his infectious laugh combined with a great smile, the second is his passion for the work he did – help people with disabilities find employment - and the third was he utilized a wheelchair. “I’ve been a wheelchair user for twenty-five years. I’m a paraplegic. I have a T12 spinal cord injury caused by a home accident when I was a teenager. My brother was playing with a gun and it went off and struck me.”

September is National Spinal Cord Injury Month aiming to educate the public regarding SCI and improve the support for those with SCI. Paraplegia refers to the loss of movement and sensation in both legs and, sometimes, part of the lower abdomen. According to a 2013 study done by the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, roughly 1.7% of the use population reported they were living with some form of paralysis, defined by the study as a central nervous system disorder resulting in difficulty or inability to move the upper or lower extremities. The leading cause of paralysis was stroke (33.7 percent), followed by spinal cord injury (27.3 percent) and multiple sclerosis (18.6 percent).

“I love to share my personal story because I know the importance of hearing from the voice of the people we serve. I am not just a person, who assists people with disabilities, but I am a person with a disability myself and when you have a true understanding of the needs of the people you serve, you can serve at a higher level.”

Workforce Solutions in Texas help employers meet their human resource needs and individuals build careers, so both can compete in the global economy. They offer career planning guidance, tips, and advice for improving jobseekers’ job search, offer training and education opportunities, and financial support to make it all possible. Cornelius has called Workforce Solutions his home for ten years now. “I have been a wheelchair user since age 17 and many of my jobs have been desk jobs. Although I am very skillful with my hands, I sometimes felt like I had to settle for something that didn't require me to move around too much. I was also expected to have a position that wasn't mobile because employers didn't want to put the stress of being mobile. With Workforce Solutions, I found a job that I loved that allowed me to be impactful and mobile, and my skills were recognized. When my disability is not recognized as a barrier, then I strive to be successful in that role which I feel like I have done.”

As someone with a disability, Cornelius can relate a lot to the jobseekers he assists to find employment. “I always disclose my disability. I want to work for an employer that embraces diversity and people with disabilities instead of using questionable means to eliminate skilled workers who happen to have a disability.” He adds, “my advice would be to not settle and recognize your potential. When you recognize your potential and skills, you are better able to find employment in the field you would like to work in. Your success not only depends on your ability to do the job but also your ability to relay your skills to potential employers as well. Candidates should be able to speak about themselves in a way that employers can recognize their skills and, hopefully, not see their disability as a barrier.”

A common myth or stigma employers fear when thinking about hiring talent with disabilities is having to accommodate everyone with a disability. “My employer must only allow me to be successful in my role. Unlike what many people think, people with disabilities don't usually require any additional days off than people without disabilities. Any accommodations that are needed may be simply structural and usually don't cost an employer any money or very little.” About 31% of accommodations cost nothing and 50% cost less than $50. Many employers fail to remember the word before accommodations – reasonable. And, especially during the pandemic, most are probably giving them already. Cornelius adds, “I do have an open space where I can work and move around in my area but that's the same support other coworkers as for as well.”

I mentioned the first thing I noticed about Cornelius was his laugh, which I can still hear today even though I have not seen him in a few years. I love to learn more about people outside of their work and not to my surprise Cornelius was doing what he does best. “Although I am a wheelchair user, I use my experiences gained from working and daily living to make people laugh. I am also a stand-up comedian, which is funny in itself for someone with the inability to stand to be a stand-up comedian,” he laughs, “I guess I will have to call myself a sit-down comedian.” Cornelius brings out the best in each person he meets because he knows what happened when his employer allowed him to bring his best to work.

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