Agency for Persons with Disabilities (APD), Blind Services, and Vocational Rehabilitation recognized six businesses today with an Exceptional Employer Award. These companies from across the state were recognized for hiring people with disabilities with plaques made by people with disabilities. The 15th annual celebration was held virtually as part of recognizing October as Disability Employment Awareness Month.
The Exceptional Employer Awards are presented to companies that have a strong commitment to employing and retaining people with unique abilities. Event sponsors were The Able Trust and RESPECT of Florida.
The six award-winning businesses are:
- Blaze Pizza Store 1064 of Tallahassee
- Lee County Library System
- Rita’s Italian Ice & Frozen Custard of Lake Buena Vista
- The Florida Bar
- Whataburger #55 of Ft. Walton Beach
- Youth Co-Op, Inc. of Miami
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said, “I congratulate all the Exceptional Employer Award winners being honored today and thank you for leading the way on this important initiative. I look forward to seeing how these businesses and individuals continue to accomplish their goals while helping make our state an even better place to live, learn and work for people with unique abilities and all Floridians.”
APD Director Barbara Palmer said, “We are thrilled to honor these very deserving companies from around the state for their commitment to employing a diverse workforce. These companies know that individuals with special abilities are some of the most reliable employees within their organization. We want employers to know that hiring a person with a disability is good business.”
Dane Eagle, Executive Director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, said, “Jobs are important to all Floridians. We are therefore pleased to recognize businesses in our state that demonstrate their support and commitment to the independence of Floridians with unique abilities. Businesses in the Unique Abilities Partner Program see the importance of employing all Floridians so they can continue to strengthen their workforce, communities, and Florida’s economy.”
Director of the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Allison Flanagan said, “I am proud to honor the employers who are diversifying their workforce and looking beyond the disability. Individuals with disabilities are an integral part of an inclusive workforce while enhancing their local community.”
“For those of us at the Florida Division of Blind Services (DBS), National Disability Employment Awareness Month serves as a great opportunity to spotlight wonderful employers who recognize the many benefits of hiring disabled workers and the great work done by those who are blind or visually impaired. While we recognize the challenges faced by persons with disabilities, we strive daily to ensure our clients have the needed access and opportunities to thrive in the workforce,” said Division of Blind Services Director Robert Doyle.
“Employment of people with disabilities is an economic imperative for our state. It is estimated that 31% of Floridians with disabilities who could and want to be employed are not. Businesses who recognize the value of disability workforce inclusion realize significant gains in their bottom line, but more importantly in the loyalty of their workforce and customers,” said The Able Trust CEO and President Tony Carvajal.
“The Florida Association of Rehabilitation Facilities (FARF) and RESPECT of Florida are pleased to celebrate the efforts of so many businesses who are empowering Floridians with disabilities through creation of employment opportunities. We join other stakeholders in recognizing their successes and say, ‘thank you’ to these employers for making a meaningful difference in the lives of so many individuals,” said FARF Chief Executive Officer Suzanne Sewell.
Agency for Health Care Administration Bureau Chief for Medicaid Policy Erica Floyd Thomas spoke about the Working People with Disabilities program. Other guest speakers at the event included Florida Linen Services of Jensen Beach employee Rebecca Potvin, Florida Bar Employee Mingdee Hou, and Radiology Associates of Tallahassee employee Reagan Brown, who shared what having a job means to them.
Here is information on the six winning companies:
Blaze Pizza Store 1064
This new business located in Tallahassee has immediately made an effort to be inclusive, hiring two individuals with developmental disabilities to work in the restaurant as part of the entire 41-member workforce. These two employees serve as greeters welcoming patrons when they enter the restaurant. They also assist with sanitizing doors and tables to prevent the spread of COVID-19. These employees are described as pleasant, bubbly, and happy. Their teammates help them by providing natural supports at work.
Lee County Library System
This municipal employer has several library branches in the Ft. Myers area. The library employs 11 individuals with unique abilities and Lee County government employs 41 people. The library system has an outstanding talking library loan program for customers with all types of disabilities. One of the library’s most recent hires is a person with a visual disability who is served by the Division of Blind Services. DBS was able to provide special glasses and a magnifier to assist the person with being able to read the book titles to ensure the books were properly organized when being re-shelved after being returned to the library. This person has been on the job for 18 months and is doing great work.
Rita’s Italian Ice and Frozen Custard of Lake Buena Vista
This sweet shop opened in 2019, and always been inclusive of people with unique abilities, especially those with autism. One of the owners is on the autism spectrum. Since opening, Rita’s has employed 11 people with disabilities. Today, they employ seven people with special abilities out of the 11-member workforce. They go above and beyond for the autistic community. This business hires people that some would consider unemployable and trains them thoroughly, so they excel at their jobs. One individual spent five months in training, but the company did not give up on the person, and now that person is a successful employee.
The Florida Bar
The Florida Bar, the state’s guardian for the integrity of the legal profession, was founded in 1949, and has more than 300 employees in Tallahassee, Orlando, Tampa, Miami, and Ft. Lauderdale. As an official arm of the Florida Supreme Court, The Florida Bar protects the public and fosters a high standard of integrity and competence for Florida’s lawyers. This organization has also fostered an environment of inclusion with its staff with more than six individuals with disabilities employed. The Bar retrofitted its office to make available special emergency evacuation chairs for employees with physical disabilities. They provide extra time to an employee with a cognitive disability and always welcome his job coach. This organization is committed to treating everyone with respect.
Whataburger, Store Number 55, of Ft. Walton Beach
This restaurant has five individuals with unique abilities on the payroll. These individuals hold a wide variety of jobs, including grill cook, fry station cook, a prep attendant, and two employees that serve as porters. Each of these employees fills a critical role in the success of the restaurant. The environment is supportive and accommodating to employees with disabilities allowing extra time for training and adjusting schedules and tasks to meet the needs of the individuals and the restaurant.
Youth Co-Op, Incorporated, of Miami
This company partners with CareerSource in Miami to provide training to individuals looking for work in addition to many other community programs. They currently employ 10 people with disabilities and over the years have hired more than 60 individuals with disabilities. This employer has worked with the Division of Blind Services to provide accommodations such as larger computer monitors. Other accommodations provided include height-adjustable chairs. Sharon Jadoo with the Division of Blind Services wrote Youth Co-Op goes the extra mile to make every employee feel valued and allows them to reach their highest potential with excellent opportunities to grow in their careers.
APD supports people with developmental disabilities to live, learn, and work in their communities. The agency annually serves more than 55,000 Floridians with severe forms of autism, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, intellectual disabilities, Down syndrome, Phelan-McDermid syndrome, and Prader-Willi syndrome. For more information about the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, visit APDcares.org or call toll free 1-866-APD-CARES (1-866-273-2273).