Neill Christopher: "Give me 45 minutes and I will convince a business to give this a chance!”

Montage of people working in a window factory. Center photo: Director Sue Page giving an award to manager Neill Christopher. Acadia employees have a wide variety of jobs at the window factory, including assembly, machine operations, loading dock, and repairs. Jessie Markle (first photo) who is blind recently told her parents "All my life you've taken care of me; now I can take you to dinner!"

NOVEMBER 2015 - DORS rehabilitation counselor Jan Stauffer began working with Neill Christopher several years ago when she worked for The Arc, back when he was not interested in hiring people with disabilities. Jan recalls that she and Neill talked about the kind of jobs available at Acadia Windows and she kept saying “We can do that. We can do that. We can do that.” So, Neill went back to his team and they decided to hire one person to give Jan’s suggestions a chance. Today, 10 percent of the workforce at Acadia’s Rosedale facility is people with disabilities and Neill has become a disability employment champion. He has been The Arc of Baltimore County and The Arc of Maryland Employer of the Year, received honors from M&T Bank and the Arc of the USA, and been featured in an Arc USA public service announcement and a Time magazine ad.

On a tour of Acadia, a visitor meets an employee who is blind, an employee with an Autism spectrum disorder, and several with developmental disabilities. Neill recounts his initial thoughts about hiring people with disabilities to work in a manufacturing environment. “Jan asked if we hired people with disabilities and I said ‘I don’t think so’ but she kept pushing so we decided to try one person…and that’s how it started.” One led to more and soon the entire Acadia team was on board with the hiring of people with disabilities. So when Jan approached Neill regarding hiring Jessica (Jess) Markle, who is blind, no one objected. And later, when Acadia had to make some changes to help Jess be safe at work, the team got together to come up with a plan. Neill: “Everyone wanted to figure out what to do so we could keep her here.”

It would be a mistake to think that employees with disabilities are given special treatment at Acadia. Neill says that they are held to the same standards as their co-workers. “Everyone has the same quotas…and the employees with disabilities are in the top five percent for attendance, the top ten percent with hitting their performance goals. They make us a better company.”
Of the awards he has received, Neill Christopher says, “Every time Acadia gets some recognition, it’s the team that works here who are making it work and earning that award. Yes, [the hiring of people with disabilities] has to come from the top down, but it also has to come from the bottom up, to get the buy in. And every time we've needed to make something work for a new employee [with a disability] the Acadia people had the better ideas.”

Neill believes that Acadia’s more diverse workforce has made the entire company better. “On the whole, our retention is better… and everything we did to make things safer for the people with disabilities made it safer for the people without disabilities.”

DORS honored Neill Christopher and Acadia Windows with its 2015 Employer Leadership Award for their outstanding commitment to the hiring of people with disabilities. DORS and Neill are partnering to reach out to other Maryland businesses to promote the hiring of people with disabilities. “We were that company…not wanting to take the chance because we were always afraid that people would get hurt.  Now I say just give me 45 minutes with a business and I will convince them to give this a chance!”

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