06/02/2011 08:55 pm ET Updated Aug 02, 2011

Giving Americans With Disabilities the Chance to Work

One of the first jobs I ever performed was as a janitor, cleaning offices. Today, I'm the CEO of an international nonprofit that serves nearly 2.5 million people each year. My journey from janitor to CEO presented many moments when I had to convince potential employers that I was the right person for the job. This is tough for anyone, but at points it was especially difficult for me -- I'm blind, and this often made employers skeptical about my ability to get the job done.

For the 54 million Americans with disabilities, the hardest part of making a living often isn't succeeding at work -- it's convincing employers to give you a chance. Americans with disabilities are almost twice as likely as anyone else to be unemployed. This isn't because they don't want to work or can't -- it's because employers often do not believe they have the skills needed to get the job done.

Fortunately, there are many workers proving those beliefs wrong every day. At Goodwill Industries, I get to meet a lot of those people. One of them is Michael Bulling of Tacoma, Wash. Michael was born extremely premature, weighing less than two pounds, and was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and a learning disorder. Despite his disability, he worked hard and graduated from high school, but he was unable to find a job.

Then, three years ago, after enrolling in a job training course at Goodwill, Michael was offered a job as a custodian at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. He eagerly accepted it, even though he has to travel by bus, making multiple transfers, to reach the airport every day from his home in a suburban area of Tacoma. With 30 million people passing through the terminal each year, Michael's job is physically taxing -- he sweeps, washes chairs, dusts and replenishes supplies, among other tasks. But Michael has performed this work for three years, impressing coworkers and supervisors alike with his dedication to the job and determination to build a stable life for himself. He spends his spare time giving motivational speeches at local Boys & Girls Clubs and other organizations. Eventually, he hopes to work as a consultant to help others with disabilities.

On the other side of Washington State, there's Chad Christman, another man who didn't let skepticism about his ability get in the way of his desire to work. When he was four months old, Chad was on a drive with his parents, sitting on his mother's lap in the passenger seat, when the car was t-boned and he was thrown from the vehicle. Chad spent much of his childhood in and out of hospitals. He was fitted for leg and back braces and had a metal rod inserted in his back. He was never able to walk, but he does have upper-body mobility.

Throughout all of this, Chad developed a strong sense of exploration and innovation, especially with computers; he would take them apart and put them back together, trying to make them work, eventually building his own computer network at home. But employment was another story. He landed job interviews, but he did not receive job offers.

In 2005, Chad found a job with Goodwill Industries of the Inland Northwest. In his first position, his computer skills were not exercised -- his main responsibility was sorting toys -- but supervisors soon recognized his unique skills and put them to good use. Today, he is the IT administrator for Goodwill, maintaining servers and assisting more than 240 computer users.

This year, Goodwill Industries International is recognizing Michael as its Kenneth Shaw Graduate of the Year and Chad as its Achiever of the Year. Michael and Chad succeeded because of their own hard work and determination, but also because they found employers that knew their disabilities wouldn't stop them from performing on the job. Unfortunately, too many of the other 54 million Americans with disabilities never get the chance to work, because when employers look at them, they often see only a wheelchair, or cerebral palsy, or blindness, or a hearing impairment or other disability. Chad's and Michael's employers looked beyond their disabilities and saw two individuals with unique skills and outstanding work ethics. They also know that employing people with disabilities isn't about doing anyone a favor; it's quite the opposite, as they'd be hard pressed if they lost either of these dedicated employees.

Other employers who have hired Americans with disabilities report similar findings: people with disabilities are hardworking, motivated and enthusiastic about doing a good job, and it costs little to nothing to accommodate them in the workplace. Those who have hesitated to hire a person because the candidate has a disability should keep in mind the unique contributions these individuals can make, and remember that every person deserves the opportunity to reach their fullest potential through the power of work.