By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium
BENTON HARBOR — The newest employee resource group at Whirlpool Corp. chooses to look at what people can do and not what they can’t.
To the members of AVID – Awareness of Visible and Invisible Disabilities – the workplace should be an environment of inclusion and accommodations. The group, which was created to break down barriers and support those with disabilities, has been drawing more members since it began in May this year.
The group got its start through two Whirlpool employees, who began looking for that same kind of support through the appliance maker’s work environment.
After a few months at his new job with Whirlpool, Graham Forsey noticed the variety of employee resource groups ranging from military veterans to the LGBT community. During the fall of 2014, Forsey began the process of creating a new one.
“I was looking for a group with disabilities because we have our own specific issues as well,” said Forsey, who was born deaf. “I went ahead and took the initiative to post on our internal website to see if anyone else felt the same. I saw Sheila (Thurman) was looking to set something up also. A lot of people have been really supportive. We just needed to have the will power and energy to get involved and set up the group.”
Together, Forsey and Thurman became the group’s co-leads. Soon after, Candace Birmele and Joseph Taylor joined the ERG and are considered to be among the core group that helps run AVID.
The group tries to meet every three weeks, holding an event one or two months at a time to keep the nearly 60 members in touch with each other.
Taylor set up a Lunch and Learn event in November where members watched a film called “Lives Worth Living.” The film was a 2011 documentary on the early days of the Disability Rights Movement.
As community lead for AVID, Taylor reached out to the Southwest Disability Network of Michigan and the Twin Cities community for ways to get involved.
“Since then, we’ve been growing slowly, but surely,” Taylor said. “We grow every time we host an event. We’ve noticed a lot of interest.”
In the months after its conception, AVID has sponsored the Rescue Run 5K – which helps rescue dogs to be trained to help veterans who return home with post-traumatic stress disorder. Also, at the state capital, AVID members collectively donated $500 to honor the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Candace Birmele, communications lead for AVID, said many misunderstand people with disabilities. Birmele has a special understanding of the subject because her son has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, and she has struggled with depression since age 14.
“Most people that see me have no idea, but there are days when it’s hard to put on that smile and come into work and get things done,” Birmele said. “Most of us live by the ‘fake it until you make it’ rule. It’s nice to have other people in the network that understand that and we can lean on each other by learning ways to cope with certain things.”
Taylor said AVID will help guide Whirlpool to become one of the best organizations that people with disabilities look at for a job. Taylor’s involvement comes back to understanding his fellow co-workers, he said.
“When we talk about disabilities, it’s not just about people coming into the workplace with a disability,” Taylor said. “It’s about us getting older. As we get older, we need accommodations. If I can’t see as well, maybe the accommodation is a bigger monitor. The big word is accommodation.”
Taylor said he wants to bring Michigan Rehabilitation Services in for a presentation, among other organizations. Forsey said they have considered including an American Sign Language class in the spring.
Through all the planning and goals, there is one thing Forsey wants AVID to continue to do.
“I want to make sure diversity and inclusion is really saturating the company,” he said. “If somebody is struggling with a specific frustration or issue, they can contact AVID and we can be there for support.”
(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Dec. 4, 2015)