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This guest post is by Tricia, Co-Owner of Ability Star Designs. Tricia is applying for our Supporting Small Businesses That Hire People With Disabilities Grant Opportunity ran by my nonprofit KFM Making A Difference. You can learn more about the grant opportunity here.

I hope you can support my nonprofit like I’m trying to support our community. I also produce educational videos to celebrate neurodiversity by spotlighting individuals impacted by a diagnosis. Learn more on how you can help our cause with a small donation (just asking for $3 today, equal to your daily cup of coffee) here.

“Lauren, are you coming to work today?” This is a common text message from Ability Star Designs worker, Cody. Communicating with coworkers is one of the few lessons Cody has picked up from working at his new business, Ability Star Designs.

What is Ability Star Designs? It is a custom apparel company that employs adults with disabilities. We make shirts, bags, masks, and more!

Ability Star Designs is eagerly applying for this grant to expand our business. We currently use vinyl on all of our products and would like to purchase more equipment, such as a screen printing machine. Our hope is that with this grant we will be able to broaden our product options and also teach new skills. This will potentially increase business which will lead to the opportunity to offer work to more individuals with disabilities.

Ability Star Designs began its journey in the summer of 2020. Special education teacher, Tricia Rohde, heard the frustrations of students’ parents trying to find work opportunities for their young adults after high school. She envisioned starting an inclusive business for individuals with disabilities. She contacted some parents of former students and proposed the idea of a t-shirt making business. The group met in a backyard and launched a mission statement and plan to get the business started. They all agreed the overarching mission would be to provide meaningful employment opportunities for adults with disabilities while being inclusive and accepting of all abilities.
Together they launched “Ability Star Designs” in the fall of 2020. The team works on the weekends at Ability Star Designs creating, pressing, and stocking their shirt business. They are learning job skills, the value of money, and how to process orders for customers. They check in to see their schedule and have also learned to contact their boss if they will be absent.

Our employees come to work excited to start the day and work together as a team. Our work days include cutting and weeding vinyl, creating designs (custom and originals), pressing shirts, filling orders, shipping or local delivery, cleaning equipment, taking out the trash, expanding our job skills, and learning to work with others while appreciating each other’s strengths. Everyone is recognized individually by having an employee of the month. The employee receives a special treat. The benefit of being recognized can be explained in two words: pride and confidence. The employees “shine” with the positive attention and are such hard workers. They continue to learn and adapt to the new skills that they are learning. A typical workday has the owner, Tricia Rohde, incorporating education and job coaching. Co-owner Kelly and her son, Cody, work at Ability Star, where Cody manages the heat press on most shifts and makes sure the shirts are neatly pressed. Kari and her daughter, Kaleigh, work to create designs and help maintain the company website. Kaleigh likes filling orders and being with her friends at work. Roshelle and her daughter, Mariyka, fold the shirts and oversee finances. Beth and her daughter, Lauren, are the vinyl masters as they weed the designs. Lastly, Amy and her daughter, Josie, weed vinyl and work on packaging orders. After all orders are complete, the group ventures out with their parents to deliver orders.

Even though the business is still in the start-up phase, we have had huge successes, including consistent orders from local schools, the development of an online store, the support of local agencies, and the design of individual custom specialty shirts. Our most significant accomplishment was filling our largest order for a local school and organization that promotes inclusion for all. Our marketing is driven by word of mouth and social media.

Why is it important to hire people with disabilities? We have found that our hypothesis in starting this company was correct: adults with disabilities have the ability to be amazing workers! Our workers have learned great job skills, social skills, and they have shown many people how hardworking they are! The more opportunities people with disabilities are given, the more the world will see what they can all do!

Having National Disability Employment Awareness Month is important for many reasons. The month brings attention to the positive impact and key contributions of hiring people with disabilities. People who interact with our young adults (and all people with disabilities) walk away better people. They are impressed by their abilities and loving nature, and they understand that all people are hireable and can learn skills needed to be a part of the community. An entire month is a terrific amount of time to create more awareness of this population. If it was “just a day,” it would come and go and be easy to forget. Businesses understand that hiring people with a disability is an option, but what they might not understand is the value of a stable workforce that comes with hiring people with a disability.

We have high aspirations and hope to develop into a nonprofit screen-printing shop that can continue hiring more individuals with disabilities. As we grow, we also want to expand and work with other businesses. Ability Star Designs has received recognition from many local individuals and companies, including more individuals interested in working for a great company.

As we expand our business we hope to open up other types of opportunities for individuals with disabilities. We have lots of ideas for what that will look like and the impact is priceless.

Follow my journey on Facebook, Tiktok, Twitter, my Facebook Fan Page, & Instagram!

Kerry Magro, a professional speaker and best-selling author who is also on the autism spectrum started the nonprofit KFM Making a Difference in 2011 to help students with autism receive scholarship aid to pursue a post-secondary education. He further continued his work through advocacy, small business grants, inclusion events and other initiatives. If you’d like Kerry to speak with your students, faculty and/or business contact him at Kerrymagro@gmail.com.