Differently-abled: Giving people with disabilities an equal chance

Published: Jan. 28, 2020 at 8:22 AM EST
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You may know Drew Steele as the ECU Pirates biggest fan or the world's best hugger. To others, he's a friend, a son, even a co-worker.

"Drew has worked with us for 10 more or less years. He's here three days a week and when he's in the building, everything's happier," said Dr. Jasper Lewis D.D.S., P.A. of Eastern Orthodontics and Pediatric Dentistry.

Steele was born with Down syndrome 35 years ago, but that doesn't mean he's disabled, just differently-abled.

"He shows no limitations," said Lewis.

Steele has been a staple to ECU sports. He runs through the tunnel with the Pirates and goes out on the basketball court to flex for the crowd. He was recently crowned the first ever North Carolina Best Buddies Champion of the Year for his efforts with the non-profit. On top of all of this, he works three jobs.

"My job is to make sure he is busy and put him to work. I have him do chores, shredding paper, wiping down window," said Randy Warren, a gym supervisor at the Drew Steele Center.

"He talks to everybody, everybody is laughing and joking with him. He blows up balloons and gives them out. When patients are coming in, he'll say hey 'how are you doing' or one of the things he asks everybody is 'what'd you have for supper?' So it's always fun," said Lewis.

Unfortunately, not every company considers hiring people like Steele.

There are more than one million adults in North Carolina living with a disability, but less than half of them are employed, according to Governor Cooper's office.

That's why organizations like ECVC are working to bridge that gap.

"ECVC is two things: the largest employer of people with disabilities in the eastern region. We also have a placement program that helps train and prepare people for employments," said Director of Employment Services at ECVC Christina Bell.

ECVC strives to provide opportunities for those who may not always get one.

"It's not about a disability category or a type. Each person with a disability is an individual. Their needs are individual and they have individual skills and talents that we can capitalize on. Focusing on that, the abilities, the skills, the talent is really the biggest things they can look at instead of the worries or fears," said Bell.

Consider Steele's impact, for example. "Drew has made all of our staff and patients realize how happy someone can be and how upbeat somebody can be," said Lewis.

Warren adds, "Just seeing Drew brightens my day. He always has a smile on his face. He's always cheerful. When you see somebody like that, you can only be happy."

When it comes to creating more of those opportunities, Ashka Lewis, the Facility Program Manager at ECVC, encourages people to "have an open mind and realize that someone might have a disability, but they're like you or I. They want to work, be successful, they want to be able to pay their bills. Be willing to give individuals an opportunity."

Who knows, you might actually learn a thing or two.

"If everybody could be as positive and upbeat as Drew, we'd have a lot better world," said Lewis.

If you or someone you know with a disability is looking for employment, call ECVC or head to their website.