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My Employment Journey: Part of the Equation

A graphic promotes National Disability Employment Awareness Month.
According to the US Department of Labor, National Disability Employment Awareness Month acknowledges the contributions to the nation’s economy made by workers with disabilities, current and past, and the vital role persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities play in making the nation’s workforce diverse and inclusive.

With National Disability Employment Awareness Month right around the corner, I've been reflecting on my own employment journey. My journey to the job I currently have was not one that I planned and it didn't go as easy as one, two, three. It was and still is a journey of faith. You see, when I left high school, I faced barriers in qualifying for disability resources and vocational training that I had been told would help prepare me to enter the workplace. As I applied for services, I was told I was either too high functioning or too low functioning to receive these services. I had a lot of time to wonder, and even be afraid of what my future might hold. The workplace had always been a scary place for me. I wasn’t so worried about the type of job I would get; I was worried about the support I would receive to be successful in my job.

But the closed doors I faced were just the path to what I consider to be the biggest resource doors out there: Special Olympics. You may be thinking that Special Olympics is just a sports organization, but I can honestly say, “it is so much more.”

A group of Special Olympics soccer athletes pose for a photo in front of a soccer goal.
My soccer team (Team Terminators) at the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games.

Throughout my 15 years of being involved with Special Olympics, I have gained many skills that have enabled me to be more equipped to move into the workforce. I developed those skills by first starting out as an athlete. While out there on the field and court, and in the pool, I learned leadership skills and how to become a collaborator. I then moved into even more leadership roles through the Athlete Leadership program where I gained new skills through public speaking, becoming a Board member, and trainings I attended to become a Health Messenger and SSIGM. Having the confidence I had gained through my involvement, I had the courage to accept each new opportunity that opened before me. I even ventured into my local community and joined an advocacy organization for persons with intellectual and development disabilities (IDD), The Hawaii Self-Advocacy Advisory Council (SAAC), as well as joining the Hawai'i State Council on Developmental Disabilities.

These new roles helped build out my advocacy skills. I now felt prepared to confidently enter the workforce.

To everyone else, it looked like a single leap. But in reality, it was hundreds of baby steps.

I really liked this quote because it was exactly how it happened for me. A hundred little steps leading to my job with Special Olympics Hawaii (SOHI). When I accepted my job as the Athlete Leadership and Healthy Communities Assistant, I was excited because I had the opportunity to empower other athletes as they grew and developed their leadership and advocacy skills. I was also honored to be giving back to the organization that had given so much to me. But the best part was working in an environment that believes in inclusion in the workplace and having leaders who were willing to listen to me and give me the support I needed to do my job successfully.

Renee Manfredi October 22 Unified Leadership.jpg
I love being a leader - whether that's at the Gallagher Risk Management presentation (top) or co-facilitating a Unified Leadership training (bottom).

With my move to Texas, I was met with a new employment opportunity as a Consultant with the Organizational Excellence and Health teams at Special Olympics International. With the Zoom world wide open, I could accept this position and work remotely to begin this new phase of my career.

In my new role, I can address the very thing I was afraid of about entering the workforce: the support and respect a person with IDD needs to be successful in the workplace. This is an issue that many individuals with IDD face & is often the cause of the loss of employment.

How am I doing this? Through co-leading trainings on the Unified Leadership approach.

You may be wondering, what is the Unified Leadership approach and why is it important? I am super happy to tell you.

Two individuals appear on a Zoom screen. They are stretching.
My fellow SSIGM, Daniel Smrokowski, and I leading chair yoga for CNA Unified Leadership “Warm-Up”.

The Unified Leadership approach believes that “building from sport we can teach leaders without disabilities to value and learn from persons with IDD, to make changes and create environments where people with IDD get opportunities to have meaningful jobs and roles.” I believe that this approach will help break down the barriers that persons with IDD encounter in the workplace. I also believe that breaking down these barriers starts with understanding what real, meaningful inclusion is. The Unified Leadership approach is the best way to get these important conversations started & to create lasting change that will lead to real inclusion for future generations. You see, each of us has something unique to bring to the table. Using everyone’s gifts and talents will make us truly a part of the Equity Equation.

A strong workforce is the sum of many parts, and disability has always been a key part of the equation. People with disabilities make up a wonderfully multifaceted group. By recognizing the full complexion of our community, we can ensure our efforts to achieve disability inclusion are, in fact, truly inclusive.
Taryn M. Williams, Assistant Secretary for Disability Employment Policy

I am part of this equation.

I share my story because maybe you're unsure of where your life is leading you and you feel stuck right now. You do one activity, you volunteer for one thing, and you aren’t sure if it is making a difference in your life but I'm telling you, just stick with your path, have faith, and the doors will open for your future. You are gaining skills all along the way.

If I could share some advice, it would be:

  1. Get involved with Special Olympics.
  2. If you are already involved, stick with your practices and your team involvement.
  3. Learn about all the leadership opportunities that are available to you.
  4. Say “Yes” to new opportunities that will increase your skills.
  5. And finally, “Be brave in the attempt.”

The leadership skills that are gained through Special Olympics will equip you to walk into any job more prepared & ready to be an inclusive team member & remember: you are part of this equation!

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