The year 2020 proved to be a challenging year for many people. At a time of isolation and loneliness, many people were able to touch the lives of others and create positive change in the world.
At the beginning of 2020, I’d heard the story of Margaret Cortes, who started a special project that touched the hearts of thousands. After losing her job in 2018, Margaret opened the Special Kneads Bakery in Galva, Illinois, replacing a community bakery that had closed. She wanted to take this opportunity to start her own business, but she also wanted to make a difference in the life of her 16-year-old son, Frankie Cortes.
Frankie has cerebral palsy and Dandy-Walker variant, a rare genetic disease that often causes developmental delays. Margaret wanted to use her earnings from the job to fund her son’s post-secondary education. She also wanted to create a job opportunity for Frankie, knowing that he’d have some trouble finding one as a disabled individual. She wanted this job opportunity to help him develop important social and collaborative skills.
“It was important for me that he didn’t end up just working in a factory or working where he wasn’t getting that exposure to other people,” Margaret says.
And Frankie seems to love every minute of his work.
If you walk into the Special Kneads Bakery on an average day, you’ll find beautiful handmade bread, muffins, scones, brownies, desserts and even hot biscuits ready for purchase. You’ll also find a smiling mother-and-son tag-team, working hard on the next batch. And nowadays (after a generous donation from the Strahan, Sara and Keke show), you may even see Frankie delivering treats throughout Galva in his Club Car Onward golf cart!
Margaret hopes to use her business to provide educational and vocational opportunities to disabled individuals in the future.
This heartwarming story exists in multiple forms across the nation. Thousands of people and organizations work tirelessly to integrate disabled people into communities, especially when our current society fails to make opportunities available. As dark as the past few months have been for many disabled individuals, innovators, advocates and entrepreneurs everywhere have continued to be there for these often forgotten voices.
Take a look at Soul Studio, an art studio in Michigan where adults with special needs can express themselves through visual arts. Adults are able to pick up hobbies and vocational skills through classes with various art forms (painting, ceramics, weaving, sculpture, photography and even printmaking). They’re able to develop cognitive, physical, creative and social skills within a safe and welcoming community, and are even given the opportunity to sell their pieces and make a living with their art! Another noteworthy organization creating lasting change is Project Work, based in Toronto, Ontario. Project Work organizes programs to help intellectually disabled people develop work skills to succeed in entry-level jobs.
However, the most positive 2020 impact on disabled people may have been more structural. It may have been the normalization of at-home work.
Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic forced many of us to attend corporate meetings and work on projects remotely through Zoom, we’ve probably thought of it as an inconvenience. However, the increasing popularity of online work actually improves access to employment for the disabled.
For example, getting ready for work in the morning, or commuting to a physical office building can be very difficult for people with physical and mental disabilities. With remote work becoming an option, disabled individuals may find it easier to maintain a job. Additionally, disabled people have the opportunity to personalize their work environment and schedules to better suit their needs. Some people may work better while wearing casual clothing or benefit from going outside more throughout the day. Others may need special services to be scheduled throughout a workday, such as doctor visits or help with daily activities from caretakers. Individuals with autism or ADHD may focus better when they are away from distractions in the office. People with visual difficulties may want computers set up with magnification, screen readers or special lighting.
Liz Johnson, managing director and co-founder of The Ability People, a UK social enterprise, believes that this normalization is an important first step. She hopes that it will make it easier for disabled individuals to find jobs that work well for them. On the other hand, Robert Kingett, a 30-year-old freelance writer with cerebral palsy, is thrilled by the remote work opportunities. However, he’s disappointed that so many companies ignored past requests of disabled employees to work remotely.
“There’s no excuse for not offering remote work,” writes Kingett. “I think this is a great middle finger to the excuse of, ‘We just don’t have the technology to do remote work.’ This recent shift, especially in the publishing industry, proves that they can actually do most work-from-home, given no other option.”
Moreover, changes to public and urban design due to COVID-19 can potentially improve life for disabled citizens. Businesses have started implementing automatic doors in order to decrease the chance that germs can spread through handle contact. This has the added benefit of making mobility easier for physically disabled people. As cities have started to make store aisles and pavements wider to encourage social distancing, they also make these locations more accessible for wheelchair users.
As we start to rebuild our cities and communities after this tumultuous year, we find hope in the people and organizations that open doors for the disabled. But not all of us have “Special Kneads” in our community, and not all of our city councils and politicians care about building accepting societies. Disabled people have asked for specific changes, year after year, but institutions didn’t even implement them until they were useful for everybody. The conclusion? We must all challenge ourselves to normalize disability and the needs of disabled individuals, by spreading awareness and striving towards personal and public action — so next time, we don’t need a global pandemic to spark some change.