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Opinion Columns

Opinion: Employees with disabilities can get the job done

Meet my son, John, who discovered companies were eager to hire, until they met him in person

America needs workers. The latest reports from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics show more job openings than people to fill them.

Tom Olson

Yet, as desperate as they are for employees, employers continue to put barriers in front of job applicants with disabilities. They would do well to remember that individuals in the disabled community can get the job done when given the right opportunity and assistance.

Individuals such as my son, John.

At age five, John was diagnosed with drug-resistant epilepsy. Throughout his childhood and early adulthood, he suffered from uncontrolled seizures, which put him at high risk for a life-threatening event known as sudden unexpected death in epilepsy. 

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In addition to drug-resistant epilepsy, John has autism spectrum disorder. This means it can be difficult for John to understand what others are thinking or feeling, and he doesn’t always understand social “rules,” like making eye contact when having a conversation or letting another person speak without interrupting. John prefers to stick closely to a routine and carefully plan out activities before doing them. 

Between both diagnoses, my wife and I fretted. What would this mean for his quality of life and future? More than anything, we wanted John to have as close to a “normal” life as he could. We wanted him to feel a sense of purpose through a job, enjoy his favorite hobbies and feel independent.

Seizures controlled John’s life until he was 22, when his doctor introduced us to VNS Therapy, an implanted device that sends signals to the brain through the vagus nerve. It has provided a greater quality of life. With fewer seizures, John has been able to explore new things, like hiking, skiing and getting a job.

It took a family move from Colorado, in February 2020, to see just how difficult it can be to get that job. The move required John to leave his job at Culver’s restaurant in Littleton, where he worked as a guest attendant. For a man who structures his life around routine, it wasn’t easy to leave.

It was even more difficult to find work in our new Wisconsin home. After 25 applications and 12 interviews, John still had no job offer. It was becoming clear that once employers were made aware of his epilepsy and slight cognitive delay from his autism spectrum disorder, John was no longer a top candidate.

The whole point of the move was to be closer to family, and to help John start a new life; finding a job was meant to be the first step toward that goal. Frustrated, we decided in April to move back to Colorado.

John called his old supervisor at Culver’s and was immediately welcomed back. Just three weeks after moving back, John began working at his old job as a guest attendant. 

Culver’s is well-aware of John’s epilepsy and autism spectrum disorder, but they’re willing to give him the opportunity and assistance to get the job done. They’ve made accommodations for John by implementing protocol to follow if he were to experience a seizure while on the job. They also understand that John has a never-give-up attitude and that his disabilities don’t limit his contributions to the business. They see that John wants to work. He wants to have a job. He wants to feel like he’s part of a community.

Today, he’s back to delivering food orders to customers, cleaning the restaurant, and helping to manage the condiments and napkins – all with a smile on his face.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

As a parent, it was incredible to see John’s transformation after returning to Culver’s. The feeling of significance he got from returning to his old job had such a profound impact on his overall quality of life. He’s so proud to be working at Culver’s again that he often asks us if it’s okay for him to walk home from work – about 1.5 miles from our home – in his uniform so that everyone passing by can see that he works there.

John working at Culver’s shows employees and customers that even though someone may have a disability, they can do the job – and they can do it well.

Employing individuals of this community can let others who have never been around someone with a disability begin to realize that they’re no different. They can understand that there’s a range of disabilities – including epilepsy and autism – but these disabilities should not disqualify someone who is willing and able to get the job done.


Tom Olson lives in Highlands Ranch.


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