Opportunity vs Ability

If you watch Rachael Ray’s show, you may have seen this week her video chat with the staff at Beau’s Coffee. The local coffee shop was started recently by the parents of special needs children and employs them as baristas, cashiers etc. I think it’s a wonderful venture started by truly wonderful and amazing people. It has created jobs for some who might otherwise not been able to have them. As Rachael Ray said, she wants to see one on every corner in the country.

The only negative I have heard regarding this particular business model is that it will still allow people who do not want contact with those with special needs to avoid them. I think it’s an interesting premise and actually could also be a positive (because, really who wants to deal with someone who dislikes them).

Beau’s opens up an interesting conundrum, however. What about the kids (and adults) with special needs who shouldn’t be working in these kinds of businesses (or any customer facing business) but are?

I’ve worked with many with special needs over the years. Some were mostly physical while others had cognitive and intellectual disabilities and many a combination of the two. Many of my friends have gone to Beau’s and remarked on the outstanding quality of product AND customer service. And I’ve found that in my jobs if the customer service portion was fulfilled by any employee (with special needs or otherwise) then there typically wasn’t a problem. I’ve also found that some companies do not care if the employee can do any portion of the job but will hire an employee simply for the tax cut.

Let me use two real life examples I encountered. I worked at one job with a young woman with some physical limitations but mostly intellectual disability. She smiled and was friendly and engaging with  the customers. She took extra care to follow their directions as to bagging their items and always offered carry out service and even made easy conversation. She was a gem and people fought over getting her to bag their items.

Many years later, I encountered a young man who you only wanted to bag for you if you liked your bread flat bread and your eggs scrambled. He often made inappropriate and offensive jokes (he had an intellectual disability). There were many complaints before a manager finally decided he could clean bathrooms (under supervision) and collect trash but really shouldn’t be customer facing. Management and other staff (including myself) worked with him to try and improve both his technique and attitude but he made it clear telling myself and another employee, “It’s a free country, I can say what I want, people shouldn’t get offended. And it’s not like they’ll fire me!”

He was right on that last one. Hiring a special needs employee is the easy part. If they are found stealing or doing a poor job or anything else, termination is usually a huge headache.

So why do companies so often hire those with special needs who are unable to perform the tasks required or with questionable other issues? The simple answer: money. A co-worker who once worked for a large grocery chain in New England told me they only hired special needs baggers because the state gave them a huge tax incentive to do so. So anyone who applied, was hired. The results, he said, were very mixed. Some individuals were great at their jobs and others very clearly didn’t care or were completely unable to do them. But the company essentially got back every dime they paid these employees at tax time. They also rarely made full-time because Social Security restricted how many hours they were able to work and full-time wouldn’t pay enough to live off of. So it was a double win for these companies.

At the nearby big box store where we used to live there was a greeter with multiple disabilities. He was great at his job but in the case of an issue requiring more assistance than he could provide, there was always another associate nearby. When the greeter position was eliminated at corporate, instead of allowing him to continue (as it was literally the only job in the store he could perform), he was put on the floor where he simply followed other associates around and watched them work (occasionally he would hold something on his wheelchair but that wasn’t always possible). I felt bad for him because it wasn’t his fault the company eliminated the position but why did management not request an exception be made (as I later found out many other stores had done for employees in similar cases) to allow him to stay in that position? It just didn’t make sense. He was physically unable to stock items, so why was he on the floor?

I think the practice of hiring those with special needs is a great thing, if, the person hired can perform the job required satisfactorily. The young girl I worked with years ago and the employees at Beau’s are great examples of this. The original position the greeter I mentioned above was in was ideal. And I realize that this can be difficult to gauge at an interview, but it’s reasonable to say that the normal 90 day trial period should apply so that if it becomes apparent that this individual is not able to fulfill the duties of the job satisfactorily that can be dealt with accordingly. My own child would not be able to do any type of customer facing work and I wouldn’t want her to be hired with that expectation anywhere. But if whatever work she was doing she was doing poorly or not able to do because of her limited ability, I would rather the manager tell me it’s not going to work out rather than keep her on expressly because of her disability. No one, not the company, the customers, the fellow employees nor my child would win in that situation.

Let’s applaud Beau’s and all those creating opportunities that otherwise did not exist, while keeping in mind that just because the opportunity now exists it should not be given to just any person.