- Mitch Blatt
Sometimes people need help doing their best. They need help finding the job that fits their skills, or breaking out of their comfort zone in the workplace, or any number of job-related things. This can happen through mentoring or continuing education, but it can also happen through a dedicated organization.
Jobseekers of diverse abilities can reach out to an organization like Exceed Enterprises and be matched with a staff member who’ll talk with both them and their employer to figure out the answer to “How can we bring out this person’s strengths and help them succeed here?”
But hang on. What’s a “person of diverse abilities?” Is that a new term for “person with a disability?”
Well, that’s part of it. Exceed Enterprise’s mission is to support people who have diagnosed intellectual and/or developmental disabilities; their Director of Development & Communications, Cosette LeMay, says that they focus on what people with disabilities can do, rather than what they can’t, “everything we do at Exceed is all about uncovering people's strengths, their talents, their interests, and so we like to use language that puts the emphasis on ability and possibility and figuring out what people are passionate about, and what they can do rather than the barriers that they might encounter, and it just kind of reflects our attitude towards working with folks in the community.” Exceed tailors job positions to a person’s strengths.
Take Angel Machado, for example. One of Exceed’s many clients, she has exceptional fine motor skills, which became apparent during her work in a sheltered workshop (a model of work environment specifically for people with disabilities, which the State of Oregon phased out in 2015 due to many workers being paid less than minimum wage, as well as concerns over promoting segregation) assembling metal parts from scratch for a variety of companies from Dairy Queen to Freightliner. While she was a skilled and capable worker, she struggled with self-doubt and was worried about the stigma of being handicapped—would people see her wheelchair before her?
She used to be shy, nervous, and not have much confidence when it came to learning new skills, but that changed, and is still changing, with help from Debbie Edlund, her then-supervisor and Exceed’s current Group Employment Director.
The way Angel tells it, Debbie is “pretty amazing. She definitely helped me through a lot of life experiences and work experiences. And just life in general. I would not be where I am at now without Debbie Edlund in my life.” Debbie met Angel while acting as a supervisor at the sheltered workshop, and over time they developed a relationship; the work and support Debbie offered as Angel’s supervisor was focused on building her confidence and developing social support.
As Debbie puts it, this took “lots and lots of talking, and just letting her know to trust in me that I would never put her in a situation where she wouldn't be successful.” She “knew that Angel had the ability to get out and be productive [...] oh, my gosh, she's got the best fine motor skills in the world.” But social stigma held Angel back; she would worry about having a disability, about people only seeing her wheelchair, but Debbie would encourage her that people, “don't care about your chair. Come on, let's do this, we'll do it together, I'll be right there with you.”
It took a while, but they transitioned Angel away from the workshop, and eventually into community employment at the manufacturing company Northwest Fourslide.
“That disability part, really, was the number one factor for her because she was afraid that people wouldn't accept her,” Debbie says, “and I just tried to encourage her that ‘that's not what this is about.’ [...] And it wasn't, [Northwest Fourslide] welcomed her.”
Angel and Debbie aren’t the only ones who have benefitted from this sort of positive thinking —it’s threaded throughout Exceed’s entire workplace culture, Cosette says; “I think a lot of what we try to do is focusing on possibility and opportunity. Working with people to discover what they're really interested in, what gets them excited, and what they feel like they're good at, and building off of those strengths.”
The employees “are nothing but positive.” Debbie says, “We all have our bad days, everybody does, but we get through it with support and with friends. And I think when potential customers see that and they see our interaction with our folks, that we treat them just like everybody else, and the dependability we have, they're like, ‘Wow! Okay, we're on board!’ And we've gotten a couple of referrals from other companies that have said, ‘Hey, look! You guys can't go wrong, talk to Exceed, they'll get you set up,’ and we appreciate that. [...] It's just amazing to me when people's eyes start to open up and they drop the fear. It's great!”
Angel adds that, “I literally would not be where I am today without Exceed and all the staff. I used to be really shy and timid when I started working at the work floor, and I think I definitely have come out of my shell and out of my bubble [in the process of] working at a real job. It's not always easy, but you have to [...] work on your anxiety; social anxiety is definitely the biggest [issue] for me, and just [...] trying to survive everyday life and challenges."
Currently, Angel’s building toggle switches for airplanes, a safety measure so that cockpit button labels don’t get lost when repairing button fuses. Jan Mellinger of Northwest Fourslide says, “Angel has flourished into a very confident, independent, hardworking, and committed individual. She arrives to work eager to excel in everything she does, whether she is assembling an aerospace product or just conversing with coworkers in the lunchroom.” Northwest Fourslide partners with Exceed in the latter’s Work Futures program, an individual employment program where employees have a job out in the community and have access to a job coach who’ll check in with them and offer whatever level of support they need. Exceed also has group employment programs (one job coach to several employees at an on-site business) and a day program that has employment training—practicing the skills necessary to get a job, like resume-building, interviewing and volunteering to gain work experience.
Exceed’s looking at expansion, with Debbie explaining that, “in the past Exceed has pretty much been [only in] Clackamas, Multnomah, [and] Washington county. But again, as things change and we grow, we realize that there's other counties out there. […] We're expanding through the entire state of Oregon. That's a big expansion. It doesn't come easy, and it doesn't come fast. But we are getting the word out. [...] We're just spreading ever so slowly. There's a lot of need for day programs, and there's a lot of need for individualized work out there. [...] It's just a matter of trying to get [to] everybody that needs our services. We're trying, and [...] we're getting there.”
Just as Angel’s experience and confidence has grown, Exceed’s reach is also growing. As Jan Mellinger says, “Angel continues to play a key role in the company and has become an integral part of the NW4S family. We are thankful that Exceed provided the pathway for Angel to discover her giftings and talents, and created the opportunity for her to fully apply herself in the workforce. Ultimately, it was her willpower and determination that got her to where she is.”
Exceed’s helping “people of diverse abilities” like Angel acquire the skills they need to have an impact in the workforce and contribute to society; in doing so, they’re also helping to lead a cultural change to foster work environments where everyone can feel heard and valued and unlock their potential. If we give them the chance, they’ll bring their expertise to the table and show stigmas the door!