MADISON, Wis. (AP) – Nobody can fold a box quite like Patrick Young.
Gov. Scott Walker learned that first hand as Young, who has Down syndrome, led a 2012 tour of Tailored Label Products in Menomonee Falls. Young challenged Walker to put together specialized packaging used by the company – think of it as a complicated pizza box – as quickly as he could. As Walker fumbled at the flaps, Young adroitly snapped everything into place in seconds.
Walker said meeting Young helped inspire an initiative he unveiled in his State of the State speech last week. The effort, called “A Better Bottom Line,” is aimed at getting more Wisconsin companies to hire people with disabilities including autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury and mental illness.
People with disabilities account for about 9 percent of the state’s workforce, based on data provided by Disability Rights Wisconsin. But their employment rate is less than one-third that of workers without disabilities, and workers with disabilities on average earn 30 percent less.
Walker has proposed spending $800,000 by mid-2015 to expand an on-the-job training program for workers with disabilities. He hopes to expand the program from seven to 27 companies over the next three years.
The governor plans to highlight employers and organizations that help people with disabilities find work, in part by talking about the issue during stump speeches around the state. He also is ordering state agencies to focus on building, recognizing and promoting public and private programs and organizations that improve employment opportunities for those workers.
One of the biggest barriers people with disabilities face in finding work is the attitude of employers and the community, said Beth Swedeen, executive director of the Wisconsin Board for People with Developmental Disabilities.
Hiring managers largely come from a generation in which people with disabilities were separated in school, not included as they are now, Swedeen said. Because of that, business leaders haven’t gotten to know someone with a disability or seen the potential for what they can contribute, she said.
“This is not about a charity program or a pity model,” Swedeen said. “This is about what makes sense for businesses and what makes sense for taxpayers in the state of Wisconsin.”
Tailored Labor Products CEO Mike Erwin said Young has been an asset for his company.
“He’s extremely enthusiastic. Mr. Cheerful,” Erwin said. “And he’s an inspiration to our team and our ability to go outside the box in the development of careers for all types of employees.”
Young started working at Tailored Labor Products six years ago, when he was still in high school, Erwin said. He does some general housekeeping and assembles marketing materials and cartons like the one he put together faster than Walker.
“It was amazing how quick he can do that,” Walker said in an interview recalling the visit. “He clearly outpaced everyone else.”
Walker invited Young to the State of the State address and recognized him during the speech. He also noted that his initiative is modeled on one Delaware Gov. Jack Markell began during his tenure as chairman of the National Governors Association.
Efforts to improve employment for disabled workers in other states have failed largely because of a lack of commitment, said Lisa Pugh, public policy coordinator for Disability Rights Wisconsin, an advocacy group that helps people with disabilities and their families.
She hoped the attention Walker promised to focus on the issue would make a difference here, specifically in helping more people with disabilities to find work at fair market salaries.
Swedeen also was hopeful that Walker could put some power behind the issue, setting set targets and goals that state agencies and departments could work to achieve over time.
“It’s one thing for people who are in advocacy or are in social service programs to talk about employment,” she said. “It’s a very different thing for your governor, who’s the leader in the state, and has ties in the business community to get on top of that message.”