Only four out of 10 working-aged adults with disabilities are employed nationally, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution.
Milwaukee small business Gear Grove has been chipping away at that gap locally by regularly employing people with disabilities. It’s helping the firm fulfill its mission of producing hand-crafted wood furniture and designing spaces.
Lyle Stoflet, Jr. and Tom Daugherty are co-owners of Gear Grove. It's on 27th Street, just south of Hampton Avenue in Milwaukee. They meet us in their shop, where one room is stacked up with piles of reclaimed wood.
Stoflet explains proudly that they know the backstory of all this wood.
"So, we can tell our clients, ‘Hey, [the wood] was in this building that was built in 1908. [The building] was torn down, and now it’s your coffee table.’” He adds that a lot of their products are very unique, one of a kind.
"You’re never going to see another one," he says. "Because it’s wood that isn’t being cut down anymore.”
The shop’s employees are also one-of-a-kind. One-third of its workforce reports a disability. They currently employ 18 people, and over the years they've had 10 employees who've reported a disability. After Stoflet and Daugherty started the company in 2012, they were approached by an HR firm that exposed them to state programs that help people with special needs get placed with work opportunities.
"Early on we got a really successful candidate through the program," he recounts. "He ended up being with us for 4 1/2 years. From not having consistent work prior to that, to becoming a rock star with us. Going on from very part-time to full-time to managing departments, and kind of an awesome growth story."
After that success story, the company kept at it, hiring people with a range of disabilities. "Some are emotional disabilities, some are very obvious physical disabilities," says Daugherty. "So, it’s a really broad spectrum of what different people have.” He says they meet the person, see if they like them and see potential. Then as the person adapts to the company, the company will adapt to the worker, which ends up helping on both ends.
"We find a lot of people find a niche that may take a month or two to come out and then they’ll find out, ‘Oh they love doing this, no one else loves doing this,’ or ‘They do this better than anyone we’ve ever seen before.’ So it’s kinda just finding the right person for the right fit." Daugherty says. He says that right fit can be in-shop assembly positions all the way to office assistants and marketing jobs.
Abe Bremer runs Gear Grove’s laser department and programs the machines. He says he has a mental health disability. He wears many hats for the company, but only after spending two years without a job after finishing school. He says the company allowed him to be open about his mental health needs and has made it possible for him to attend counseling. "I’m a single father right now, my daughter’s mother just passed away as well," he explains. "They’ve been very accommodating with that, letting me leave for appointments and be there for my daughter.”
Bremer says stress shuts him down, but he’s able to be productive in a supportive environment. "It’s good to come here every day," he says. "[To] know I have a job, know I’m making money, know I’m supporting my family. Seeing the project when it’s completed, that’s always something that’s nice too."
One project Bremer is working on involves binary counting toys — that help kids learn computer programming basics. He laser cuts them out of new wood for a customer who’s working with MIT Design Labs. Bremer says he has some physical issues that his bosses accommodate, something that he’s also seen help new co-workers with physical disabilities.
Daugherty says Gear Grove will create a custom work-area for employees, allow them to work shorter days, and help them with transportation … whatever it takes. "It’s really just the right thing that makes them capable of doing the job and working with each individual to make those tweaks, so they can be successful," he says.
Daugherty adds that it ultimately comes down to having an open mind, both in terms of creating designs, and in determining what their staff can bring to the table.