More than half of the deaf and hard of hearing people in the U.S. are unemployed, according to a 2016 study by the federally funded National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes.
This grim statistic makes the success of Kevin O’Connor even more remarkable.
O’Connor recently landed a full-time job with benefits at the Walmart store in Hodgkins. O’Connor wouldn’t have the job, however, without the training he received at Ed’s Way, the small independent grocer in Forest Park.
O’Connor grew up in Forest Park, within walking distance of Ed’s Way. He has been deaf since birth but still enjoyed playing baseball, basketball and soccer when he was younger. He has four brothers and everyone in his family knows sign language, “some more than others,” according to O’Connor.
At Walmart, O’Connor isn’t just a valued employee, he’s a trailblazer.
“Kevin has a good work ethic,” said Carol Piane, in human resources, “We have hired others from the program, because of Kevin.”
The program she is referring to is the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Program at Hinsdale South High School. Carrie Morfoot is the coordinator. She explained that the program has been run by the LaGrange Area Department of Special Education (LADSE) for 52 years.
“We take in students from all over the Chicago area,” Morfoot said. “We have 92 member school districts.”
Proviso Township High School District 209 participates in the program. Proviso pays for O’Connor and other district students to attend classes at the Hinsdale South and later at LADSE’s Transition Center and Vocational Program.
“Kevin came in as a freshman to take his required high school courses,” Morfoot said. “All the academic courses teach students how to use the course in the real world.
“All the teachers are certified in teaching deaf and hard of hearing students. They are skilled in sign language, which is Kevin’s primary method of communication.”
The program prepares students with disabilities to attend college, or enter the workforce.
“There is a vocational department that gives freshman and sophomores jobs inside the school,” Morfoot said. “They learn how to take direction and complete tasks.”
O’Connor was 16 when he started working in the high school cafeteria and taking courses.
“Health was my favorite class,” he said through an interpreter. “I also liked gym class and history. I didn’t like math and science, and driver’s ed was very hard.”
O’Connor spent four years at Hinsdale South, before moving on to the Transition Center.
“At the Transition Center, I learned how to manage money, open a banking account and shop for groceries,” O’Connor said.
He learned other basic life skills like cooking and cleaning. He also practiced job interviews.
“It’s all a little bit fun,” O’Connor said. “Job interviews are nice. You have to look nice.”
Overall, O’Connor enjoyed his four and a half years at the Transition Center and made some good friends. After working school jobs, he was ready for a job in the local community.
“We place students for training at places like Whole Foods, Target and Loyola Hospital,” Morfoot said. “Once they are trained, we get them into employer-paid jobs.”
She said that local businesses like Ed’s Way are vital to the program.
“We connected with Ed’s Way through Kevin’s mother, Marianne,” Morfoot said. “She sent us [owner] Mike Nutley’s contact information.”
The grocery store agreed to train O’Connor.
“Kevin was at Ed’s Way for a year and a half,” Morfoot said, “Without that stepping stone, Kevin would never have been hired by Walmart.”
When he started at Ed’s Way, the program provided a job coach to help O’Connor become acclimated. Linda Sliz has known O’Connor for six years.
“He always has a smile, always willing to help,” Sliz said. “He accepts criticism and is motivated to do his best.”
Sliz admits that O’Connor was shy and hesitant when she first met him, but now he knows how to work through problems.
The first problem he faced at Ed’s Way was communicating with his employer.
“Employers like to learn sign language, or communicate by text,” Sliz said.
O’Connor used the latter method. Sliz worked side-by-side with O’Connor for several weeks.
“We unloaded trucks and stocked the freezer,” she said.
“It was a little difficult at first,” O’Connor said. “Communication was hard. I used gestures and texting to communicate with my supervisor, Mike Nutley.”
Nutley taught O’Connor how to stock shelves.
“I made sure the shelves were full I learned how to separate the different kinds of food. I made sure the products weren’t expired.”
Nutley recalled being approached by Marianne O’Connor about employing Kevin.
“Kevin’s school later came out and proposed the program,” Nutley said. “We saw that Kevin was a good kid who would work hard. Of course, he was a Sox fan but we didn’t hold that against him.”
He recalled O’Connor worked several days a week, when the store had shipments to unload.
“His job coach came the first couple of weeks,” Nutley said. “Then she let him fly on his own. Kevin wasn’t crazy about the frozen food. He wore gloves and a sweatshirt to stay warm. He was a bit timid and apprehensive at first but became like part of our family. At Christmastime, we have stockings of the employees hung up. Kevin didn’t see his stocking, so we put one up for him. We communicated by text and never thought of him as deaf.”
O’Connor would get flustered when customers asked him questions, but he came up with an innovative way to communicate.
“Other kids, you tell them to put their phone away,” Nutley said. “Kevin has an app on his phone to communicate with customers.”
After their positive experience with O’Connor, Nutley said they would hire another worker from the program “in a minute.”
After leaving Ed’s Way, O’Connor received assistance at the Transition Center to complete his application for Walmart. The center also provided an interpreter to translate during the interview. O’Connor was hired to work part-time at Walmart but was willing to work longer hours.
“Kevin was a good fit,” Piane said.
O’Connor was soon promoted to full-time, working the 2 to 11 PM shift, unloading trucks, sorting products and stocking shelves.
“Kevin was our first full-time employee hired there,” Morfoot said. “Since then, they have hired three more.”
O’Connor’s job couldn’t have come along at a better moment. He was reaching a critical time in his life, when he would no longer be eligible for the services provided by the program.
“Participants age out at 22, and Kevin is turning 22 this year,” Morfoot said.
O’Connor embodies what the program is all about.
“Our goal is to help students with disabilities, so they won’t be dependent on the state, or their families,” Morfoot said.
Besides making him more independent, the job has had other perks for O’Connor.
“I have two friends at work, Jose and Hamad,” he said. “I work a lot, but I enjoy it.”
According to Sliz, people with disabilities can be better employees than mainstream workers, but it takes a team to ensure success.
“Successful outcomes require a huge team effort,” she said.
Having a local business on the team makes all the difference.