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Pitt joins Giant Eagle, sets goal to put more disabled on payroll

| Monday, May 4, 2015, 10:30 p.m.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Ryan Cenk, of Gibsonia, is a brain tumor survivor who has worked at Giant Eagle in McCandless since June. He has been tumor free for 10 years.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Ryan Cenk, of Gibsonia, a brain tumor survivor who has worked at Giant Eagle in McCandless since June, assists customer Sharon Connors, of McCandless, on Friday, May 1, 2015. Cenk has been tumor free for 10 years.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Ryan Cenk, of Gibsonia, a brain tumor survivor who has worked at Giant Eagle in McCandless since June, jokes with a customer on Friday, May 1, 2015. Despite the challenges he has faced, Ryan tends to keep a positive attitude and enjoys making customers laugh.

The first few times Ryan Cenk applied for a job, prospective employers turned him down because of something he can't control: his left hand.

“It made me kind of sad, but it also made me feel like, ‘Well, you're missing out on a good employee,' ” said Cenk, 20, of Gibsonia.

Cenk has weak mobility across much of the left side of his body, a limitation that stems from having part of a brain tumor removed when he was 3 years old. The Pine-Richland High School graduate walks cautiously and with a slight limp because radiation treatments he underwent as a child severely weakened his left leg.

In recent months, Cenk has built a reputation as one of the friendliest and most reliable cashiers at Giant Eagle's Pine Creek Shopping Center supermarket in McCandless. He says employers should recognize that a minor accommodation — in his case, a tilt-screen cash register he can operate with one hand — is a worthwhile investment for a good hire.

Twenty-five years after President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disability Act, flanked by former Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh, advocates for people with disabilities peg employment as an area in which not enough progress has been made.

“We have a long way to go,” former Gov. Tom Ridge said during a speech at the University of Pittsburgh in March. Ridge wears a hearing aid. “These are men and women that would be great employees; they just need a chance.”

The first of a two-day National Council on Disability meeting opened Monday at the university's William Pitt Student Union, the first time the body has met in Pennsylvania. Discussion about how to increase the number of people with disabilities in the workforce dominated the afternoon portion.

In Pennsylvania, about 34 percent of people with disabilities are employed, compared with three-quarters of the able-bodied workforce, state data show.

“One of the barriers is just misperception, and that's one of the things that we do is help de-mystify how people with disabilities can go to work,” said David DeNotaris, executive director of the state Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, which serves 75,000 people with disabilities annually, including helping about 10,000 find work.

“Many accommodations are low cost or even no cost,” added DeNotaris, who is blind.

Statewide and nationally, people are working to attack the problem early by getting educational institutions to do more to connect people with disabilities with employers.

Pennsylvania spends an average of $200,000 to educate a student with a disability. But when they finish school, nearly six in 10 of students with disabilities can't find jobs or give up looking, according to the Campaign for What Works, a statewide coalition lobbying legislation that would increase resources to help high-schoolers with disabilities secure part-time and summer jobs.

In Allegheny County, nearly 40 percent of about 1,000 people ages 14 to 21 with disabilities are neither in school nor working, according to data compiled by the United Way of Allegheny County.

Cenk found employment with the help of United Way's “21 and Able” initiative.

Giant Eagle is the pilot partner for the model, which involves getting employers to dedicate a position to recruiting and retaining employees with disabilities.

On Monday, Pitt announced it will become the second employer to join United Way's initiative, which is funded with a $378,000 grant from The Kessler Foundation. United Way's goal is to recruit three to five more employers within two years.

“Having an embedded person here working at Pitt is going to help us identify people who are job-ready and also help us find out what are the resources we might need to make that person succeed here,” said Michelle Fullem, director of recruiting for Pitt, which employs more than 13,000.

Pitt graduate student Abbas “Bobby” Quamar, who attended the National Council on Disability meeting, recalled several times when counselors and college officials in India, Great Britain and New York tried to dissuade him from pursuing a science-related degree because of his disability.

His career as a commercial airline pilot in India ended abruptly when an accident — a bird shattering the cockpit windshield during a landing — caused him to lose his sight.

“They won't directly say it to your face,” he said. “They will say, ‘Well, we haven't had a student like this before so why don't you go to a university where they've had someone with a visual impairment?' ” said Quamar, who is about a year from completing his doctorate in rehabilitation science at Pitt.

DeNotaris, with the state Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, hopes he can expand the office's reach next year. It has been flat-funded since 2009.

Gov. Tom Wolf proposed in his 2015-16 budget increasing funding for the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation by $5 million, a 12.5 percent hike. That would enable the state to leverage $18.5 million in federal money, DeNotaris said.

The office would spend the $23.5 million on improving services and purchasing assistive technology, including tools ranging from special pedals for driving to voice-over software on smartphones.

Ridge, board chairman of the New York-based National Organization on Disability, has urged employers to rise to the target set for federal contractors to have people with disabilities make up 7 percent of payroll.

He aims to ingrain in employers a mantra: “It's not about the disability — it's the ability that counts.”

Natasha Lindstrom is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8514 or nlindstrom@tribweb.com.

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