Hiring area’s handicapped more than a slogan for SLB

Mike Ward begins his day at South Louisiana Bank about noon. He picks up incoming mail, sorts it by the financial institution’s six branches and multiple departments, and makes sure it gets delivered either directly by himself in the main branch on West Tunnel Boulevard or by two couriers to outside locations.

The 44-year-old mail clerk then turns to outgoing mail. He gathers, sorts, weighs, post marks and prepares each letter, statement and package brought to him from all branches, representing about $10,000 a month in postage, for pickup and ultimate delivery.

Implementing keen organizational skills, Ward is credited with developing a postal system for the bank that has advanced not only in technology, but by level of responsibility, function and productivity as this bank expanded from one to multiple sites during the past two decades.

Between assigned duties, Ward helps co-workers by supplying their office needs and will even take a cup of coffee to those he knows can use it.

South Louisiana Bank President Chuck Weaver said beyond work skills, it is dedication that outreaches any disability an employee like Ward has. It is a trait this finance leader said is common among a segment of the population often short-changed when it comes to public understanding or appreciation.

“When you employ somebody that really wants a job they are better employees,” Weaver said. “Mike Ward wants a job and is the best he can be every day. He is dependable. He is a team player. He is loyal. He has integrity and honesty. It is hard to get all those things in one person anymore.”

Ward identified himself as having been a typical, healthy boy during his first 10 years of childhood in Houma. “Then I started getting sick and there was no explanation for it,” he said.

Medical specialists examined the youth and ultimately determined he had a tumor deep inside his brain that was causing pressure on nerves and permanently damaging them, creating constant dehydration and generating other symptoms.

Surgery was performed in 1977, but while the risky operation saved his life it left Ward severely diminished in vision range and developmentally disabled. Approximately six months after the tumor had been removed two additional malignancies were found that required treatment. While the cancers and surgeries did not affect his mental capacity, Ward’s physical capabilities were forever altered.

Ward graduated from Vandebilt Catholic High School 1986. He then attended the Louisiana Center for the Blind in Ruston and the Arkansas School for the Blind in Little Rock, Ark.

“I came back to Houma and started working at Vandebilt Catholic High School while going to TARC for training. That’s how I got a job [at South Louisiana Bank on Oct. 24 1995],” Ward said.

Mike Ward’s story is not uncommon among 19.2 percent of the American workforce identified as disabled. It is a segment of the population that employment experts contend would benefit businesses to seriously consider as hires.

Tiffany Dickerson with the Louisiana Workforce Commission is working to get the attention of employers and perspective employees. She said October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. In turn, she announced that the LWC will conduct a series of nine job fairs intended to link businesses with individuals that have various physical or developmental challenges.

The Work Pay$ Job Fair for Tri-parish businesses and residents will be held in Houma from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Oct. 16 at the Holiday Inn at 1800 Martin Luther King Blvd.

“We have been putting on job fairs for more than nine years,” Dickerson said. “This is a collaborative effort between the Department of Health and Hospital and other state agencies. We expect about 13,000 people with disabilities and 1,300 employers to participate [in the nine job fairs combined].”

Dickerson said so far 20 employers, including South Louisiana Bank, have registered to participate in the Houma event.

“We tell job seekers to bring plenty of resume copies,” Dickerson said. “A lot of times we have employers looking to hire immediately. So, [applicants] may be interviewed on the spot.”

The LWC spokeswoman said her agency is promoting diversity in the workplace and have succeeded in some areas where employers invest and benefit by hiring disabled workers.

On Friday the LWC announced that it had been awarded more than $2.2 million in federal grants to improve education, training and employment opportunities for the state’s residents with disabilities through 2016.

“Everyone in Louisiana who wants to work deserves and opportunity to do so,” LWC Executive Director Curt Eysnik said in an email statement. “This funding will help us bridge gaps that sometimes impede individuals with disabilities from getting jobs which they can do well if given a chance.”

Houma resident and disability activist Mickey Fonseca said he understands a tight job market, but hopes employers will look at what they get, in addition to select tax credits, by hiring the disabled. “They will get dedicated employees that want to work,” he said. “Having a job also helps the employee, because it builds self-confidence and helps them excel where they might not have otherwise.”

Fonseca said employment surveys, including one by DuPont, have demonstrated that disabled employees are not higher insurance risks, have a lower absentee rate than other workers and often carry performance standards equal to or better than employees without disabilities.

Ward acknowledged studies like those mention by Fonseca. He went on to say as long as disabled workers have been trained or are trainable for a position they deserve an opportunity to demonstrate what they can do.

Away from banking management, and while offering a mailroom tour, Ward admitted difficulties have existed for him during the 35 years since his initial diagnosis. Some were self-inflicted. “When I first went to the special low vision schools and TARC I was afraid people would think I was retarded,” he said. “But as I went through my training I realized everyone was just the same as me. It is just that we all have different challenges and different abilities.”

“As long as [an individual with physical or developmental limitations] is able to do the job we get the same benefits out of them as we would any employee,” South Louisiana Bank Human Resources Director Jamie Baudoin said. “We want other businesses to know that people like Mike Ward are no different than anybody as long as they can do the job.”

“So many people take for granted doing what they can do,” Weaver said. “Mike [Ward] doesn’t take it for granted and makes the best of every day in everything he does. He is a motivator to us all.”

Mike Ward, 44, works at South Louisiana Bank. He is among 19.2 percent of the U.S. workforce identified as disabled.