print logo

Shop assistants in wheelchairs – why not?

 StreetWise (USA) 26 July 2019

Disabilities don’t have to always be a restriction when it comes to jobs. In Chicago, USA an inspirational man by the name of Tony Plana shows anything is possible with the right mentality. (1750 Words) - By Staff writer

Tony Plana uses his wheelchair to scoot between six assisted checkout registers at Chicago's Walgreen's North Avenue and Wells Street store. The registers are intermittently filled to capacity and Plana makes sure people get in and out of the store quickly.

Machines can't totally replace human beings, though, so Plana helps one customer scan an item and others feed coins or dollar bills into the proper slots. He checks prices, verifies ages for cigarette and liquor sales, points out alternate sale items, changes printer paper and puts shopping carts away.

An elderly man rolls by with his walker; Plana greets him by name and asks about his wife.  "[This job is] much harder than being a regular cashier," said Maddy Rodriguez, the store manager and Plana's boss. "Sometimes you're taking care of three or four people at one time -- on the weekends six customers -- multitasking. The idea is to get them out in a fast, friendly, way. [Plana] has to stay friendly and positive all the time. We picked the cream of the crop for the job. Not everyone can do it."

Plana has all the needed ability despite his wheelchair. In fact, he said, he sometimes has to slow down because of the store's smooth aisles.

Plana owes his job to a unique partnership between Walgreens and a division of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. His employment bucks a stubborn trend in negative employer attitudes toward hiring workers with disabilities, despite the Americans with
Disabilities Act (ADA).

The ADA, signed into law 20 years ago July 26 (see sidebar, page 13) is comprehensive civil rights legislation, mandating equal opportunity in hiring and other areas, so that people with disabilities can integrate into the overall community.

Nevertheless, according to a 2007 Cornell University study, only 37.7 percent of people with disabilities nationwide are employed. A University of Massachusetts study, however, found that 87 percent of consumers said they would prefer to patronize companies that hire individuals with disabilities, said Joe Chiappetta of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce.

Disability-friendly employers may want to hire from this population, but the ADA bars employers from asking sensitive questions about disability status, even though in some cases, employers may have a targeted interest in hiring workers with disabilities, said Chiappetta, who is managing director of the Chicagoland Provider Leadership Network (PLN), which is part of Disabilityworks within the Chicagoland Chamber of

According to Disabilityworks' prepared material, the number of workforce development agencies seeking employment can also overwhelm businesses, which may not have the time to manage the relationships and requests.

Many employers sympathize with people's right to work and acknowledge that providing them jobs would help their public image, according to the University of Massachusetts study. But employers often hold back for fear that new hires with disabilities would require too much supervision, additional training, or costly accommodations to allow them to do the job.

Chicagoland PLN diffuses these issues, first by acting as a single point of contact for screening job applicants to connect them to an employer. ""The bottom line is, we help employers find talent in places they might otherwise miss when we help them reach the pool of workers with disabilities," Chiappetta said.

Mark Williams, director of Disabilityworks, said he knows of no other Chamber in the United States that has both a network of providers that serve job seekers with disabilities and another for businesses interested in hiring them.  "Because we are all one unit, we're able to gauge this demand and match the demand with a supply of workers," Williams said.

In the past 12 months, Disabilityworks has helped place 163 people into jobs through a network of 200 service providers.

Disabilityworks began as an outcome of Mayor Daley's Task Force on the Employment of People with Disabilities in 2002, using seed money from the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities. Begun in 2003, the job developer's network is one of the oldest in the nation. Because of the network's focus on job supply and demand, the task force recommended it be housed at the Chicagoland Chamber, where it has been since 2005. The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity provides the network with major financial support.

Disabilityworks was using the job developers intermittently at Jewel-Osco and Starbucks. The One Portal Employment Referral Project with Walgreens took the process a step further, by integrating store management into the training. Walgreens is already staffing its warehouses elsewhere with people of diverse disabilities and has an interest in making sure their retail stores also employ qualified workers with disabilities

"This was an eager firm, that from the top down mandated that managers
go through disability awareness training," Chiappetta said. "If every company did that, there wouldn't be the huge gap in the employment rate of people with disabilities versus people without. Employers would understand that people with disabilities do great work, too."

Mark Wagner, Walgreens executive vice president of store operations, wrote on the company's web site that diversity is important for a business to grow because "a company with people who think, look and act the same won't work in today's marketplace."

"We've taken some of what we've learned working with people with disabilities in other parts of our company, and are bringing it to the store level," Wagner said in an email to StreetWise. While the stores have always employed individuals with disabilities, they are now are making a concerted effort to attract and retain them, Wagner said.

"We are really committed to broaden our workforce in our stores to include anyone in the community who wants to work at Walgreens," Wagner said.

In addition to its efforts in Chicago, the company started another pilot program in Dallas-Fort Worth this spring to hire people with disabilities for 1 in 10 service clerk openings. A state agency is cooperating in the four-week training program, which could expand to other markets in the coming year.
Wagner and Randy Lewis, Walgreens senior vice president of distribution and logistics, will speak to the United States Business Leadership Conference when it meets in Chicago Sept. 19-22 and has received the Disabilityworks Certificate of Appreciation for Innovation in Hiring People with Disabilities from the Chicagoland Chamber at the Chamber's Board of Directors meeting recently.

The Chicago One Portal Employment Referral Project includes 15 stores downtown and on the northwest side, all of which are accessible by public transportation. Despite the recession, 11 have been hired since February 2009, Chiappetta said. All but four have remained in their positions and none of them were fired -- they left of their accord, after at least six months on the job.

Chiappetta began the program in summer 2008 with up to two hours of training for Walgreens store managers on issues such as "people first" language. Rather than label someone a "paraplegic," for example, it is preferable to say "someone who uses a wheelchair." This training was intended to dispel myths about the kinds of jobs people with disabilities can do, Chiappetta said.

Rodriguez said she learned never to take a blind person's arm but to wait until they asked for help. She also learned the difference between a service animal and a pet.

Meanwhile, Disabilityworks staff analyzed five different Walgreens positions - service clerk, photo technician, stock person, pharmacy technician, assistant manager - along with the company's core values. After detailing what the job entailed, the developers opened them up to a cross-disability candidate pool.

The candidates come from Thresholds, whose clients include people with psychiatric disabilities; from Anixter Center, whose clients have physical and developmental disabilities and hearing impairments; from Jewish Vocational Services, where people have hearing impairments, developmental and learning disabilities; from Neumann Family Services, where people have developmental and psychiatric disabilities; from El Valor, which has clients with developmental disabilities; and from the Epilepsy Foundation of Chicago; Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind, The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and Hines Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

"Then the service providers went back to their caseloads and saw which job seekers with disabilities matched those values," Williams said. "When where was a value match and an open position, it was a successful placement.

But first, Disabilityworks lightly screened the applicant again to confirm a match to the job tasks and Walgreens values, he continued. They recommended interviews as positions became available.

"Our mission is to increase economic opportunity for people with disabilities while meeting business needs," Williams said.

For Plana, "economic opportunity" meant a job that kept him from being homeless. He had previously worked as an owner-operator with his own truck and had picked up groceries for a nonprofit part-time. But he wasn't getting enough hours to pay his mortgage.

"I was in the process of losing my home," Plana said. "It became real difficult and I basically just needed a job."

He went through the Department of Rehabilitation Services and then the Anixter Center before doing the fingerprinting and background checks for the Walgreen job. "It was an ongoing process. It just didn't happen overnight. But due to the program I am able to stay in my home, compared to what I was making on Social Security, which is just not enough."

His disability dates to a gunshot 26 years ago that left him with a midlevel paraplegic injury. He can stand and use a walker, but for long distances, such as the large store, he uses a wheelchair.

Before his job with the nonprofit, Plana and a friend ran a business loading vending machines in nursing homes. He initially came to Walgreens as a stock clerk, working from baskets of merchandise unloaded onto a wheeled cart and then the shelves. Store personnel realized he could run the cash register and deal with customers more hands on, so he won the promotion to his current job.

Store manager Rodriguez said the only accommodation to Plana's disability was to lower the phone. "He can do everything everybody else can do, just about."

Plana takes a CTA bus to work because of limited parking in Old Town. He has missed only one day of work in 14 months. A snowstorm prevented him from getting his wheelchair down the alley.

Rodriguez said she chose him "because he had a friendly, good attitude and said he was willing to do anything. Mostly, he sold himself with his good attitude."

Plana said he plans to stay at Walgreens for "the foreseeable future. "It's a good company to work for. The bosses are great. All the managers are good."


Please credit article as follows:

Originally published by Streetwise. ©

SNS logo
  • Website Design