Workplace Inclusion and the Bigotry of Low Expectations


with Cari DeSantis of Melwood


Oct 08, 2018

A majority of adults with disabilities are either unemployed or underemployed, despite their ability, desire and willingness to work.

Cari DeSantis, President and CEO of Melwood, sits down with Ellee Pai Hong to share how her organization is advancing equitable employment opportunities.

Hosted by: Ellee Pai Hong Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Hong: The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that, in July of 2018, the number of job openings exceeded the number of hires. This labor shortage is in contrast to the 82% of people of differing abilities across the country who are unemployed. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I´m Ellee Pai Hong. Joining me for a discussion about inclusion, acceptance, and wage equality for people of differing abilities in the workforce is Cari DeSantis. She is president and CEO of Melwood, a nonprofit providing jobs and opportunities for people with differing abilities. Cari, thank you so much for being here.

Desantis: Hi, Ellee, thank for having me.

Hong: You know, hearing those numbers, there´s clearly a discrepancy here. Why aren´t more employers looking at this community to hire?

Desantis: I think it´s really more of a social issue -- a question of fear. Maybe it´s not knowledge that there are people out there who are ready, willing, and able to work. It´s just the population´s been somewhat hidden, and Melwood´s working very hard to change that.

Hong: You know, we know that your organization does a lot in terms of hiring out people with differing abilities, and maybe the preconception is that they´re only qualified for certain jobs and not others.

Desantis: Right, well, the world has changed so much in the past several generations, and one of the things we are fighting is the bigotry of low expectation. Low expectation by parents, by the individuals themselves, and by employers as to what people with differing abilities can do. Clearly, there´s a broad spectrum of ability among the individuals that we serve and others throughout the nation. So, our goal is really to emphasize the ability of people, and that´s why we prefer to use the terms "people of differing abilities" rather than "disabilities."

Hong: And you really want to train folks and want folks in these industries to consider folks with differing abilities. Sectors like cyber security, information technology, hospitality. Not sectors traditionally associated with this population.

Desantis: Right. The traditional jobs have been the very low-level, entry-level types of positions, and Melwood has been doing that for 55 years. We´ve trained people to be custodians, groundskeepers, working in recycling, and various sort of entry-level jobs, which was great to start with jobs, and many of those individuals have been able to grow in their positions and become foremen, or move up. But the world is different, as I´ve said, and the job openings today, the statistics that you used in the introduction, there´s such a great need for people to work in cyber security, or with technology, to people who work with customer care, retail, and hospitality, and the area -- and construction is another big one. Those are skills that we know that we can and we will teach individuals who have an interest in those areas and are willing to learn. As an employer of about 1,000 people of different abilities throughout the DMV, we know that the skills are there. If the interest is there, the skills are there, and we can make that work for employers.

Hong: And I know another aspect of this that you guys are very passionate about is wage equality. The Fair Labor Standards Act allows employers to pay a sub-minimum wage for people with disabilities. And that, in the past, may have offered incentive to employers to hire people with differing abilities. But that´s something that you say is outdated and we need to get past and modernize.

Desantis: It absolutely is outdated. There´s not another population that we would be allowed to pay sub-minimum wages in this country, and that has to change. States are beginning to see the light on changing that federal standard, at least application in their states. Maryland passed a law in 2016 to eliminate use of the 14-C certificate. It is phased out over four years. But the same thing in New Hampshire and Alaska and the city of Seattle. So, by 2020, 2022, you will no longer be allowed throughout the country, we believe, to be able to pay people sub-minimum wages, or commensurate wages.

Hong: But do you think that would be a disincentive for employers to hire folks with different abilities?

Desantis: At the end of the day, we have to think about what´s the right thing to do, and the right thing is if a person is working and contributing to the growth and the expansion and the productivity of a company, they ought to be able to be paid at least the minimum wage, or the federal minimum wage, or the local minimum wage. If you´re paying somebody and they can do the job, they should be well-paid for it.

Hong: And the whole goal is to have independent individuals contributing to taxes and society, so as a whole, everyone benefits.

Desantis: Absolutely. You know, the folks that we serve throughout the nation -- not just Melwood, but at agencies like us throughout he country, and really contribute to the economy with the wages that they earned. You know, they go to the barbershop, they go to the grocers, they pay rent, et cetera. So, that contribute to the economy. We can fill a labor shortage. And it just really, I think as a whole, society does better if we´re inclusive and we accept each other for what we can do, not for what we can´t do.

Hong: On that note, Cari DeSantis, thank you so much for being here today. Appreciate it.

Desantis: Thank you, Ellee.

Hong: And thank you for watching. For more great conversations with leaders in your community and across the nation, visit I´m Ellee Pai Hong.

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