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Dome - Disabling a stereotype

September 2010

Disabling a stereotype

Date: September 3, 2010

Home Care receives indelible inspiration from seven unusual summer interns.

Kelly Blake, who interned this summer at Home Care, helped her supervisor, David Hirsch, better understand what disabled people bring to the workplace.
Kelly Blake, who interned this summer at Home Care, helped her supervisor, David Hirsch, better understand what disabled people bring to the workplace.

At first, Pharmaquip Infusion Nurse Manager David Hirsch wasn’t sure what to expect from summer intern Kelly Blake. His apprehension wasn’t out of the ordinary, as interns are often relatively inexperienced, and, as he explains, it’s always a challenge to teach someone the ropes in such a limited amount of time.

But this wasn’t Hirsch’s only worry. He admits that initially he was uncertain of what her capabilities would be, since Blake, 24, wasn’t quite the typical intern, at least in one way: She has impaired vision, and was one of seven participants in Johns Hopkins Home Care Group’s six-week internship program for people living with disabilities.

Blake was nervous, too. Though her disability was not an obstacle to getting her undergraduate degree, she says it had deterred her from looking for work. “I can’t work the cash register, things like that. It’s been difficult.”

Giving Blake and others the opportunity to demonstrate that a disability doesn’t preclude them from making meaningful workplace contributions began with a vision from Home Care President and CEO Daniel Smith and Vice President and COO Mary Meyers. They wanted to reach out to the Baltimore community in a way that supported Hopkins’ commitment to diversity and cultural competency.

“We truly believe that looking at a diverse workforce and being able to meet their needs will make us a better provider of care to a diverse patient population,” says Meyers.   

Misconceptions dispelled

What followed was an internship facilitated by a partnership between the Maryland Division of Rehabilitation Services and Home Care’s human resources director, Denise Lannon.

Hirsch put Blake in charge of a variety of organizational tasks, and says he was astonished at how much she accomplished. His misconceptions about having a disabled intern were quickly dispelled when he saw her complete a particular filing task in one day that had been looming over him for months.

Blake, who lost part of her vision from pseudotumor cerebri, a condition that yields identical symptoms to those of a brain tumor, was able to complete the work she was assigned with the aid of a portable, electronic magnifying device, known as a CCTV.

“My biggest surprise was how well she functioned and her ability to adapt to her environment,” says Hirsch, who adds that there was no difference between Blake’s capabilities and a nondisabled person’s. “She really kicked herself into high gear.”

He now hopes that other Hopkins departments will sponsor similar programs, so that more employers can move beyond their own misconceptions about hiring people with disabilities.

Stephanie Webb, Hopkins’ ADA accessibility coordinator, emphasizes that this internship program presented important learning opportunities for supervisors like Hirsch, who might not otherwise get the chance to learn about the availability of many of the accommodations a disabled employee has access to, such as CCTVs. Webb stresses that an employee with a disability can be just as capable as anyone else, and that “it’s just a matter of getting the workforce to see that they may have to do things differently.”

That thought was reinforced at a farewell luncheon for the summer workers, when intern Michele Hale noted to the audience, “We do not like to be thought of as disabled but as differently abled.”  

Blake took away some important lessons, too. She plans to have a career in psychology, dealing with children facing significant life changes such as she herself went through when she became ill. She explains that this internship gave her confidence in her ability to help people. “[The experience] showed me that when I get a permanent job, I’ll be able to do whatever I’m asked to do.”  Now, she knows that someday she’ll “really get to make a difference in someone’s life.”

—Elizabeth Kelen

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