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Jennifer Rojas is being honored as a Disability Employment Champion of Change.
As with most things, “disability” means different things to different people. It can be empowering and shameful, unifying and divisive. To me, it is a way of life—it is in the air I breathe, the steps I take, and the choices I make each and every day. While I take pride in how far I’ve come, I believe it is important for society to remember that I am not particularly brave or courageous. While I am disabled, I am just like you.
Yet, I also recognize that individuals with disabilities often experience moments in which they are seen as something less than themselves. Maybe they are left out of office activities and daily conversations with co-workers. Maybe they miss out on employment benefits—or employment opportunities. I have found that many people believe that individuals with disabilities have unique sets of experiences. And while this may be true, it gives credence to the notion that individuals with disabilities cannot take full part in society. It reinforces societal myths, fears, and misunderstandings that hinder progress for individuals with disabilities. So, the question is, how do we change this?
I see it as my job to help dismantle these impediments. In 2013, McLane Company introduced the SPARK initiative. The initiative aims to increase awareness and provide meaningful employment opportunities to people with disabilities by implementing inclusion strategies that recognize talent, increase engagement, and drive business results.
As Inclusion Manager for McLane Company, I recognize two ideas that lead to successful disability employment—disability awareness and change leadership. These ideas are inherently co-dependent. Disability awareness draws on the understanding that education is powerful and lends itself to breaking barriers of perception. After all, you don't know what you don't know. At its core, successful change leadership is ultimately about unity. Significant changes towards policy and inclusion are formed not only by instituting large-scale programmatic change but also by encouraging the individual understanding of both the problem and the solution. I believe change leadership is not something that can be pushed on to people; it must start small and be given room to cultivate.
I came to McLane with over 10 years of experience in the public workforce system and disability employment. I knew that the programs and systems in place were good, that they were valuable, and that they could produce favorable results. I also knew that the individuals coming out of these programs could be successful only with industry at the table. However, this kind of innovation must extend beyond individual companies and be felt across the nation. With the passing of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014, the country is creating better avenues for preparing job seekers with disabilities to compete. This is the kind of change that we must all work for to continue to create a new era of disability employment.
Jennifer Rojas is the Inclusion Manager for McLane Company, Inc.