Disabled Arkansans an ‘untapped talent pipeline’ of workers, Walmart executive tells group

Margo Lemaster of Engage NWA opens “Welcoming Week.” (NWA Democrat-Gazette/DOUG THOMPSON)

SPRINGDALE -- Disabled Arkansans are an underused pool of talented workers, a Walmart executive said during the opening of Northwest Arkansas' Welcoming Week on Friday.

Arkansas is in the tightest labor market in its history with a record-low unemployment rate of 2.6% as of July, the latest state figures show. Yet the unemployment rate among Arkansans with a disability is 19%, said Victor Calise, director of global belonging, diversity, equity and inclusion at Walmart.

Calise spoke during the kickoff for Welcoming Week, an event hosted by Northwest Arkansas businesses and community groups to celebrate the region's diversity and organized by EngageNWA at the Northwest Arkansas Council. At least 125 people attended the opening event at The Jones Center in Springdale.

"Yes, to employ them you would have to make accommodations, but the state will work with you to pay for those," Calise said, referring to items such as access ramps or equipment to help those with vision or hearing problems. Employers need to contact Arkansas Rehabilitation Services or the Division of Services for the Blind, both of which are divisions of the state Department of Workforce Services, to see what assistance is available, he said.

Calise worked as a plumber before an accident put him in a wheelchair, he told the audience. He then attained a college degree in sports management. He later took a job as accessibility coordinator for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, then with the city mayor's Office for People with Disabilities before his hiring by Walmart.

At the store headquarters he oversaw, for instance, the toning-down of sound in TV displays in stores' electronic departments to make shopping easier for parents with autistic children and grouping items needed by people with disabilities in the same location in stores.

Businesses need to go beyond the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act to attract disabled customers, he said.

The 1990 act assures access to facilities open to the general public.

"It was written for people like me, in wheelchairs," he said.

More needs doing for would-be customers with conditions affecting their vision, hearing or other disabilities, he said.

Jasmine Rara told the group she was surprised and delighted to see so many people like her when she arrived from southern California to take her job as director of community development and education for the Greater Bentonville Chamber of Commerce. Rara is of Filipino descent.

The community wasn't always like that, said Gary Head, chief executive of Signature Bank, in his remarks to the crowd.

"Thirty-eight years ago this area was the opposite of diverse," he said.

Now it's welcoming, diverse and stronger for it, he said.

Efforts to convey how welcoming the Northwest Arkansas region is aren't helped by the current political climate, said Margarita Solorzano, executive director of the Hispanic Women's Organization of Arkansas, after Monday's event. Recent legislative efforts to censor what books libraries can make available to children and ban teaching of certain subjects in schools make the state look less tolerant than the communities are in Northwest Arkansas, she said.

Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, is president pro tempore of the Senate. He said Monday if the state wasn't known as a welcoming region, it wouldn't be growing, particularly at the rate it is in Northwest Arkansas.

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