Appreciating Disability Employment Awareness Month

by Suzanne Turner, Guest Blogger

October has become one of the months that is known for many celebrations of awareness. This month highlights Breast Cancer Awareness Month, National Hispanic Heritage Month, White Cane Safety Day, Meet the Blind Month, and my favorite, National Disability Employment Awareness Month.

The reasoning behind my enthusiasm for Disability Employment Awareness is that I have come a long way from my days of working in a "sheltered workshop." As a teenager with hopes of attending college in the Department of Music at Jackson State University, I found myself in alarming situation. I was losing more of my vision, and I did not know how to stop it. However, this story is not about my vision, but the barriers I faced seeking competitive employment.

Medical Mutual Quality Care Navigation department From left to right Erica Hufgard Amanda Renta Suzanne Turner and Kimberly Howard

Breaking Down Employment Barriers

I left leaving Mississippi Royal Maid’s Sheltered Workshop for the Blind in 1984, where I had been earning $1.98 per hour when the minimum wage was $3.30, I knew that working as a blind person in this environment was not the characteristic that defined me. This really sank home when I heard this concept mentioned at the 2013 National Federation of the Blind National Convention. Even though I knew that I wanted to break through the traditional barriers of blindness, I did not yet have the socialization skills, nor the support I needed to rise above it. I was stuck! I became complacent! I did not know that someone was looking for me to become a light for others. Please do not misunderstand me; I am no saint! However, I have developed and assembled my talents, goals, and mission to give back to the community of a little of what I have been fortunate to receive.

Working in such an environment assembling brooms and mops prepared me for my opportunities, and I have come to realize that someone had to do it. Just think, without a broom or mop, homes, restaurants, and establishments would be filled with unwanted trash.

However, the difference for me is the underlining meaning of opportunity, equality, diversity, and inclusion. First, the opportunity should be your decision. Second, justice has to mean being fair to all. Third, diversity must include multiple aspects and finally, inclusion should be embraced. Without these principles, where do people who are blind fit in? Putting us in a box like a sheltered workshop working below the state wage and isolating people who are blind was unfair and degrading. However, if I had been making a decent wage, I might have never achieved or explored beyond where I worked. Those who work assembling brooms and mops should have been provided the same opportunities as people who are sighted.

I am appreciative of all of my experiences. They are what made me who I am today. When I worked on high powered machines, I was one of the best workers. I was taught by my grandmother to do the best of whatever is awarded. I still live by that today!

Grateful to My Employer: Medical Mutual of Ohio

As I mentioned, I am so enthusiastic about the celebration of Disability Employment Awareness 2017. My current employer has provided me with one of the most excellent opportunities that I ever could have expected. My life has come full circle, and I am forever grateful to Medical Mutual of Ohio (MMO). As a Quality Care Navigator (QCN), I provide Medicare Advantage members with concierge service. A Quality Care Navigator works with a cross-disciplinary team to provide outreach services to Medicare and Affordable Care Act enrollees, providing assistance with navigation of health care services and community resources, benefits optimization, peer support, and other relevant services. These beneficiaries are blind and disabled seniors who may become overwhelmed with the volume of information about their health care. QCN is a new and innovative department that supports, educates, and invests in the well-being of our Medicare Advantage members. Primarily, we reach out to them before they need to reach out to us. The most important factor for me is that I provide members with respect, integrity, and most of all, empathy, as I would want the same for me and for my family. I understand what they are going through when it comes to seeking community resources, affordable medications, assistance with copays, and more. I have lived their lives. Indeed, I know exactly how difficult it is to live on Social Security with Medicare premiums deducted or to choose what bill to pay this month versus the next.

On the other hand, my expertise in social services, programs, and associations that can offer support, and understanding reasonable accommodations to help them access the printed word has been a benefit to MMO’s blind beneficiaries. The relationships I have developed across the country have afforded me unselfish boundaries, and I am determined to close the gap on whatever is needed.

Transforming Dreams into Reality

Before becoming an employee of MMO, I interviewed with a well-known pharmaceutical company that hired me that same day. But, I was never was brought onboard properly. For six months, I was given excuses about why they were unable to modify their server to provide me with reasonable accommodations. As a blind person, I use a screen reader, braille display, and other adaptive aids that help me to be productive and satisfactory. Before this interview, I worked for a state college, the federal government, a nonprofit, and my own company. I was qualified. If I wasn’t, why would the recruitment team have passed me through three interviews and offered me the job in the same day? I was what they were looking for. I had a master’s degree, 20 years of experience in social services, and solid written and verbal communication skills. They even offered me a higher wage than the job description.

The recruiters did the "right thing." They saw my credentials, but the manager saw only my blindness. It is unfortunate that they missed out on a great employee. However, MMO did not! It will be two years in December, and I am forever grateful and honored to be a part of something so special. Medical Mutual of Ohio lives by its motto, which is "We Do Things Right!" They not only do the right thing for their members but all employees as well. The funny thing about MMO is that they were looking for me. They wanted someone who reflected the population that the QCN department served. This is what everyone dreams about, the chance to be wanted by an employer. In my opinion, this is what the National Federation of the Blind means when they talk about "transforming dreams into reality." Yes, I can without a doubt say my dreams have been transformed into reality.