Nonprofit that helps disabled find work will expand

October 24, 2009 

When Richard Salem was a sophomore in high school, he got hit with a baseball. Two years later, he was blind. But that didn't stop his drive to succeed.

Salem was the first blind person to graduate from Duke Law School and was the founding partner of Salem Law Group in Tampa.

Now 62, Salem is trying to use his own experience to help others who are disabled find work. In 2002, he founded Enable America, a nonprofit that works to connect disabled people with potential employers.

The organization, based in Tampa, has selected Raleigh as one of a few key markets for expansion this year. Salem talked with staff writer Sue Stock. Here is an edited version of their conversation.

Q: Why did you pick Raleigh as an area for expansion? Raleigh is a dynamic business center that is emerging. If you look at the analytics, you see Raleigh going up, up, up. If you look at more established markets like New York, there are attitudinal barriers. People are more set in their ways. Having grown up here, I know the culture. There's the friendly Southern hospitality welcome coupled with the growth. ... [W]e don't want to go right into the brick wall in some of those tougher markets.

Q: You've compiled an impressive list of partner companies, including Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, Rex Healthcare, RBC Bank, SAS and the Carolina Hurricanes. What is required of a company that signs on? We require leadership in the sense of trying something new. They commit to ask employees to mentor a disabled person for a day, to let them shadow them. After that, they can invite the person back or sign up for another mentoring day. ... Once they are over the fear factor, the number of people within the company that respond gives them an indication of the level of interest. And we find that they understand that this is not a philanthropic charitable thing you're doing. It's smart business. People with disabilities are 70 percent less likely to change employers. They are less likely to be late. This is their social inclusion.

Q: How has the economy affected what you are trying to do? Are companies turning you away because they're afraid of the monetary commitment? No. They're saying we'll give it a try, and the ones that have done it, they say it notonly is productive, but it increases morale in the workplace. Everybody's dealing with hard times right now, and there's nothing like sizing your hard time up against someone sitting next to you.

Q: What are your long-term goals for Enable America? We hope to establish a good program not only in Raleigh but in Eastern North Carolina. We've been to visit New Bern, Greenville and Fayetteville. Those people will follow the program in Raleigh. Ultimately, our goal -- my goal -- is to see that needle move by 3 percent.

Q: Where is the needle now? Depending on whose numbers you use, 67 to 72 percent of the disabled workers in the United States are unemployed, and that rate has been sustained over the last decade.

Q: How long will it take? I used to want to do that in three years, five years. But now I'm taking a lot of vitamins because it's going to take longer than that, and I want to be around.

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