By Jan Long, Founder & CEO of Mitchell Marketing Group, dba The Mr. Canary® Company
Over coffee and muffins back in 1995, my sister, Chris, and I gleefully declared, “We should start our own business!”
Great idea, bet no one’s ever thought of that…in the last three seconds.
Starting a business is like building a coast-to-coast highway. Once the Entrepreneurial Euphoria wears off, you have to go to work. When you do, if you try to imagine how you’ll cross every hill, river or valley in your path before you move your first shovel of dirt, you’ll never begin.
You have to think, “I know I can build a road from here to the next town,” and then start digging. You have to believe that between your starting point and your first goal, you’ll get stronger, learn a few tricks, get some help and find some new ideas that will get you to your next goal.
Then, you have to be willing to work, solve problems and adapt to changing situations to stay in business.
In my experience, that’s how people with disabilities live everyday. If there’s one thing those folks understand in spades, it’s adjusting to challenges. And it’s a key reason why every employer, especially entrepreneurs, should not only hire employees with disabilities, but go searching for them.
But how do they find each other?
When Chris and I started our bird feeder business, our “starting point” was to find a customer; our first “goal” was to sell that customer a bunch of birdfeeders – which we did. Then, came our first “hill.” We didn’t know how to make the feeders we had just sold to Kmart! And we sold a lot of them. (It’s a long story for another blog; just know we had a birdfeeder we could sell….)
Chris had previously worked for Vocational Rehabilitation and knew of a place in our hometown, Carey Services, which might be able to help. Among other things, Carey operates a plant that employs workers with disabilities, most with moderate to severe developmental disabilities. We presented them with a feeder and asked, “Could you build a bunch of these for us and if so, how much would it cost?”
And that was the beginning of our 17-year partnership.
From that day until now, workers with disabilities have produced, excellently and on time, every birdfeeder sold by our company. They order and manage our inventory, build the feeders and ship them across the country to customers like Walmart and Kroger and yes, we still have our first customer, Kmart. We are indebted to Carey for our success, and Carey is grateful for good and continuing work. But that’s only part of the reason our collaboration is the Best Business Decision we ever made.
The other advantages of working with people who have an incredibly hard time finding work are less obvious, but equally valuable.
When I wrote of adapting and adjusting and its significance in business (or any) success, it’s with a special knowledge of what people with disabilities manage daily. My sister had polio when she was a kid. Chris was lucky; she survived with just leg braces and crutches. For her entire life, my family and community have seen, through her, what a “disabled” person can do if you let them. My mom was on dialysis for two and a half years – talk about adjusting daily to changing circumstances! Everyday brought a chance for adapting or giving up. The courage, spirit and ingenuity of people with disabilities, just in my own family, inspire me and challenge me to do better, quit whining and try harder in my life.
It’s that way in a business setting, too. Some of the most creative, out-of-the box thinkers you will ever have the fortune to employ are workers with disabilities. Because the quality of their life is dependent on their capacity to find accommodations, they look at mastering challenges from a different perspective: survival.
What employer of any size business wouldn’t appreciate an employee who is a creative problem solver and wants to work?
The trick is to get those people connected.
Chris and I made a promise to ourselves the day we shipped our first order – whenever and wherever possible, we tell anyone who will listen about the contribution to our success made by workers with disabilities. On every package we sell, for example, we have a disability icon with a brief story of our collaboration.
Throughout the years, you would be stunned at the number of calls, letters and emails we’ve received commenting on our story. We’ve had people from other plants like Carey calling to ask if we have work for them; we’ve had mothers write how much it means that we offer work to people in the same circumstance as their children; and we’ve had more buyers than you would imagine tell us about a family member who has a disability. That little symbol gets attention.
And attention is what this topic needs.
If we want business leaders to do better at hiring workers with disabilities, they have to know better. They need to be aware of success stories like ours. Business owners and managers have to begin to view employing workers with disabilities as an advantage that will add value to their companies, not as philanthropy or charity. That mindset shortchanges the contributions of all of us.
When business leaders begin to see what they can gain, as opposed to what they “should give,” the paradigm shifts. It will also change the way workers with disabilities recognize their value. And when that happens – well, we can tackle the problem between this one and our next goal, right?
For more information:
For information and resources on recruiting and hiring people with disabilities, visit the Employment section of Disability.gov.
Sisters Jan Mitchell Long and Christina Mitchell Mowery own and operate Mitchell Marketing Group, dba The Mr. Canary® Company, which sells The Mr. Canary® Finch Feeder, a product developed by their Dad, Ray Mitchell. Their production is handled expertly by a contracted workforce in their hometown of Marion, IN. Carey Services operates a workshop as part of its many support options for workers with disabilities. Since 1995, the employees at Carey have assembled and shipped every feeder from their facility. Except for the seed, all parts of the feeder are made in the U.S.A. from recycled and recyclable material.