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Looking Beyond a Person’s Surface

By Grace McConn

Everyone, whether we like to admit it or not, has a talent. Some of us are wonderful mathematicians, while others of us can’t do math above a six-grade level but can compose beautiful, thoughtful pieces of prose. We have many talented leaders, delegators, and organizers on this planet, and to accompany these leaders we have followers who specialize in quickly and efficiently completing tasks. Many of us specialize in the “money talk” side of business, while others of us are far better at creating personal connections with clients and customers. No matter your talent, we all have something meaningful to offer this world. However, what if your talent was hidden from the world, your true capabilities buried deep down within you? What if you were instead excluded from society based simply on your inabilites? For people with disabilities, this reality of being excluded from society is all too familiar.

Rather than being recognized for their skills and abilities, those with disabilities are often defined by what they cannot do. Subsequently, those with disabilities face loneliness because they are often excluded from social interactions within the workplace and the community that most people experience daily. However, one Cincinnati organization, Starfire, is aiming to rewrite this narrative. Starfire’s website writes that since 1993, their mission has been to “[empower] leaders to build community and inclusion alongside people with developmental disabilities. We do this by increasing social connectivity through meaningful relationships and by working to remove barriers to opportunities in the community where people can be known for their gifts, not their disability.”

Take the story of Sean and Emily, a powerful example of an individual’s disability being overshadowed by her talents, detailed in Starfire Cincy’s YouTube video Ladles Soups- Sean and Emily’s Story. A few years ago, the pair was connected through Starfire’s Customized Competitive Employment Program, which “works one-on-one with people with disabilities to secure competitive community employment tailored to match their strengths and the employer’s needs.” Sean is the general manager and director of operations for Ladles Soups, located in Oakley, Cincinnati, and because of this program, Emily was connected to Sean and began working for the company as the social media manager. Seeing that Emily utilizes speech-to-text technology as well as a motorized wheelchair for her mobility impairment, Sean admits that at first, he “had a hard time understanding exactly where Emily would work.” Since it would not be feasible for Emily to cook or ladle the soups, the pair instead identified a strong point for Emily in social media. Now, she is tasked with posting the specials that Ladles Soups offers to social media.

Not only has working at Ladles Soups given Emily the chance to be seen for more than just her disability, but it has also given her an opportunity to increase her social connectivity. In the same YouTube video, Emily admits that “Life is much better since I met Sean and other co-workers. I am more social and have met more people.” In fact, one regular customer comes into the shop about every other day to order the “Emily’s Choice” soup that she creates and adds to the menu herself. The experience that has continued over the years, overall, has been “life changing” for both Sean and Emily who now consider each other to be friends more than they are employer and employee.

At the center of another story involved with the Customized Competitive Employment program, we have Joe. Joe was hired as an Office Assistant at Empower MediaMarketing, located in Over-the-Rhine. While he is tasked with re-stocking drinks for the employees, in Starfire Cincy’s YouTube video Joe’s Story-Empower, Kate, director, explains that “Joe is truly an event planner at heart, so we have been able to tap into some of his brilliant ideas there.” Not only is Joe being seen for the creative ideas he brings to the table instead of his disability, but he also now has an environment where he can interact with multiple co-workers each day. Kate continues, “Everyone loves saying hi to Joe, getting greeted by Joe, that is really a highlight of all of our days.”

These stories from Starfire provide us with a glimpse of what we can expect our future to look like if we continue to build an inclusive Cincinnati. However, building an inclusive Cincinnati doesn’t stop at recognizing the talents of those with disabilities within our communities and workspaces. In fact, besides disabilities, there are a plethora of other “barriers” capable of hiding a person’s talents and gifts: a former criminal record, poverty, a lack of education, etc. Like how oftentimes people with disabilities are defined by that disability, many individuals are often unfairly defined by poor choices they have made in the past or their socioeconomic status, for instance. It is human nature to focus on the negative. To focus on deficits as opposed to assets. To highlight what makes others flawed rather than what makes them unique. In turn, this causes the energy of a community to be closed-minded and judgemental as opposed to open-minded, inclusive, and willing to see people for what they are capable of bringing to the table. If we are truly to build an inclusive Cincinnati, then, it is crucial that we address these negative tendencies and begin to adopt a more open mindset.

Consider Venice on Vine, a pizza and pasta serving restaurant on 1301 Vine St, for instance. While this non-profit could easily hire employees with no criminal record and/or college education, Venice of Vine chooses to take an alternative route: Progress Inspires Progress. As stated on Venice on the Vine’s website, PIP is a program with a mission to “create economic opportunities for those with chronic barriers to employment through a process of individualized stabilization, structured pre-employment training, and ultimately job placement within the community.” A website highlighting non-profit organizations in Cincinnati, Cincinnati Cares, elaborates on these barriers to unemployment, adding that they could include “generational poverty, lack of access to a quality education, a history of addiction, and/or a history with the court systems.” Like Starfire’s Customized Competitive Employment program, then, Venice of Vine is refusing to judge a book by its cover by looking beyond the surface and recognizing that each person has skills and assets to offer to an organization or company.

Whether donating to organizations such as Starfire, supporting local businesses like Venice on Vine, or creating your own inclusive community events and opportunities, striving towards creating an inclusive Cincinnati means striving towards creating a better Cincinnati.

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