It seems that incompetence in the workplace is more the norm whether it’s in our government in Washington or at the Watertown Mall.
Over the years, I have become more observant of people at their work. My primary reason for this is my own work at the Perkins School for the Blind, where as part of my job, I address the issues of future employment for my students.
Currently, around 70 percent of the blind or visually impaired population are unemployed or underemployed, and as you can imagine, this is a major obstacle for our students to overcome as they make their transition from school to the workaday world of being an adult.
To understand the employment issues for the disabled, you must first look at the big picture. My concerns are not just about the attitude towards the blind; it’s more about people’s attitudes towards work in general. It seems that incompetence in the workplace is more the norm whether it’s in our government in Washington or at the Watertown Mall. Rarely, does it seem anymore, that people want to do their jobs!
How often do you find yourself asking someone in a store for assistance, only to be met by a blank stare? I’ve often joked that it is as if aliens from another planet have abducted all the good workers I remember from my youth, and replaced them with less-than-functioning automatons.
There are, however, the exceptions, and I feel it is important to recognize these folks when you find them because of what we can learn from them. I have written before about my experiences at my local Store 24, now Tedeschi’s. Over the years, the workforce has gradually transitioned from people who have English as their primary language, to those for whom English is a second, or third, option. Given that I am blind, I’ve had to come up with new ways of communicating to indicate my needs.
This is not a rant against immigration; I find my own experience with diversity generally uplifting. A few years ago, a new gentleman began working on those shifts that I most frequent the store, Monday through Wednesday, 3 to 11, and Saturday and Sunday mornings. His name is Nurul, and he’s originally from Bangladesh, by way of South Jersey. You might know him better as the “How you doing?” guy who always says “Thanks for coming!”
When Nurul first began, his enthusiasm caught many people off guard; after all, it’s not like it was his store. Despite working for a chain, Nurul acted as if he was the sole owner and proprietor of his own corner business. Some were suspicious in the beginning, but over time, he has established his reputation with the regulars, me included. He has also managed to make converts of his co-workers, who all now greet people in the same way with different accents.
The coffee is always fresh, the store clean and Nurul can usually find what you need, even if it’s not on the shelves. He’s managed to make a convenience store actually convenient! I can’t help but feel that Nurul’s approach to his work can be a valuable lesson for my students.
One of the challenges I face as a teacher of young blind people is their limited experience with work. Unlike most youngsters, many of them have not had the after-school job or morning paper route. The reasons for this are understandable — lack of training, mobility issues for travel, and the fact that our paper money is not easily identifiable by people who are blind, contribute to this general lack of firsthand knowledge. For many of us to enter the workplace, we need extra preparation time, and this isn’t always feasible when you’re young, and the job you want is very part-time.
Another battle we often fight is the one of expectation. Many of our students assume that they will graduate, go to college and then get a great job; starting at the bottom never seems to be part of the equation. If things don’t work out great on the first try, they often feel they are better off staying home and collecting their SSI checks along with their Medicaid benefits, rather than take an entry-level position. What they don’t always realize is that good work habits lead directly to better jobs; you have to start somewhere. They are not alone, if you believe what we’re hearing from Washington and the business community, there are lots of jobs that average Americans don’t want to do.
I don’t mean to sound like the only reason that blind people don’t have jobs is because they don’t want to work — quite the contrary. The fact is that it is always easier to hire someone than it is to fire them, and this makes many potential employers afraid to take a chance on someone with a disability. If things don’t work out, an employer may fear a discrimination suit. What we need is less fear, more training and better role models.
It’s for this reason that I especially appreciate seeing a good work ethic where ever I find it. Whether it’s the McCue’s taxi driver who helps you with your groceries, or the guy behind the counter who knows his job, good work should be rewarded. I want my students to have this same experience. My only concern is that after reading this column, Nurul may get himself promoted right out of Watertown. If this were to happen, I hope his new job would be to train others at the store. I don’t know what they teach at the Harvard Business School, but I think when it comes to the work ethic, Nurul could teach those professors a thing or two. If they can’t listen, perhaps my students will.