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Andy Gardiner, business leaders launch Florida Unique Abilities program to help disabled find work

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Senate President Andy Gardiner appeared in downtown Orlando Wednesday to promote the launch of the new Florida Unique Abilities partnership, an initiative that businesses can join to support hiring those with disabilities.

Gardiner and business leaders representing AT&T, Walgreens, and SeaWorld, appeared at the Canvs building on Garland Avenue to talk up the program, saying it would behoove businesses all over the state and country to start hiring more people with disabilities. The Florida Unique Abilities partnership, they said, would offer a concrete way for businesses to show support and get the word out.

“Businesses can lead by example,” he said. “Every agency that wants to will have to send a report on what they intend to do to hire those with disabilities. That gives us the ability to promote Florida as the best place to live, work and play.”

To qualify as a partner with the program, businesses must meet one of three criteria:

— Employ at least one Florida resident with a disability for nine months prior to applying.

— Provide a financial or in-kind contribution to programs that serve the disabled.

— Or contribute to the establishment of a program that helps those with disabilities achieve independence.

Gardiner said the initiative was an important first step.

“It’s a good start,” he told “It’s about recognition and hopefully recruiting more business partners to help this population of need and get a dialogue started.”

Others, like Steve Pemberton, Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer at Walgreens, and Troy McNichols, Director of External and Legislative Affairs with AT&T Florida, spoke of the bonuses of hiring those with disabilities.

They all said it was important to be inclusive and nondiscriminatory in hiring, as those with disabilities, like anyone else, can bring strong new ideas and better quality to the workplace.

The final speaker at the ceremony was Whitney Harris, the Special Projects Coordinator with the Florida Chamber Foundation. Harris, who is disabled herself, quickly shut down any audience misconceptions that she was there to be an “inspirational” figure — rather, she was just like anyone else.

“I’m an eighth generation Floridian and a first-generation person with disabilities,” she said. “I’m not here to tell you an inspiring story or talk about how I can overcome my disability and be like everyone else. There’s nothing to overcome. I’m just a different flavor of normal. There are 1.13 million disabled people in Florida, and I’m just one of them.”

She stressed the importance again of businesses hiring those with disabilities — they, just like everyone else, need to support their families and themselves.

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