When Walmart founder Sam Walton opened his first retail store he dreamed of offering lower prices with high quality products and offering job opportunities for community workers. Today, hundreds of Walmart workers hold similar dreams in the retail business, including Spann Cordle.
Spann, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, works at Walmart first as a greeter, and now on their sales floor. While his goal is to work at their corporate headquarters as a Disability Trainer and Advocate, he has found challenges along the way.
“Every day I have an opportunity to make connections with people, shifting their perception about people with disabilities. My service dog, Finn relaxes people and gives us something to talk about,” Spann said. “But there are still challenges I face in working within the retail system. I’m sure if I’d had the opportunity to meet Sam Walton I would be in a different position today.”
“Sam Walton was a visionary, he believed in his associates and that they were the backbone of the success of the company. Mr. Walton said for us as associates to ‘exceed our expectations,’ so I feel that if Mr. Walton could see what I have done for the company, and what I intend to do, I feel sure he would’ve made a place for me in the corporate office,” he continued.
Some say that in the retail industry one’s ability to climb into roles with more responsibility is based on commission sales or sales numbers alone. For people with disabilities, where customers might not know how to approach or ask for assistance, that can be a huge challenge to overcome.
According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics released in July 2012, about 56.7 million people — 19 percent of the population, or about one out of every five Americans — had a disability in 2010, and about half of those had a severe disability. Also according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2010 statistics just over 9.3 million people with disabilities were employed. That’s only about 17 percent of all disabled people employed – an unemployment rate of 63 percent.
This is a staggering. Many people with disabilities aren’t encouraged to find jobs in the same way their able-body counterparts are.
While organizations such as the Association for People Supporting Employment First are challenging the way employers and hiring managers perceive employees, people with disabilities in chain retail stores are even less likely to have positions in upper management.
Gaining a position as a Walmart greeter in Spann’s hometown of Summerville, Georgia, Spann was just thankful to have a job. It was an easy job for him because he knew everyone in town, especially since he and his service dog Finn were often seen in town together. Spann’s manager, Jeremy Lightsey, encouraged him to think about his goals, and what steps he needed to take to move into a higher position.
“Jeremy is definitely a mentor,” Spann said. “He saw something in me that superseded the sales floor at Walmart. He saw my strengths and advocated to others how those strengths could be used.”
“For people with disabilities,” Spann said, “having a mentor can help them rise above some of the challenges they face.”
Spann and Finn have been working companions for over 11 years. Finn, raised in Nebraska, was trained by Canine Specialty Training in Independence, Missouri. Inspired by a television show on service animals, Spann said he raised the $5,000 fee for Finn to bypass the long waiting time at another facility.
For Spann, who lives independently, Finn is an essential aspect of his independence. Fluent in over 80 commands, the black Labrador mix can open and close doors, assist with the laundry, and retrieve items such as a cell phone. Finn also pulls Spann’s wheelchair, easing the wear and tear on Spann’s joints, a symptom of Cerebral Palsy.
“Finn can even pick up items as small as a dime and then put them in my hand,” said Spann.
The duo has become known for their teamwork and seamless collaboration. Working on the sales floor at Walmart, often Finn can be seen pulling Spann’s wheelchair throughout the aisles. If Spann drops something, Finn is there to pick it up.
Not only does Finn assist with physical tasks, but he breaks down barriers and perceptions about people with disabilities.
“Finn can break the ice with a wagging tail, and then customers are more apt to approach me, even though I’m in a wheelchair,” said Spann.
At Walmart, Spann says customers love talking about Finn, creating opportunities to get to know Spann beyond his disability.
However, Spann says he still encounters “customers who give me off looks or speak to me in a condescending way.”
“It’s easy for people to see my wheelchair and assume I have an intellectual disability as well,” he said.
Spann says he and Finn live by a simple but effective work ethic: “Do your job, don’t miss work, and don’t be late.”
Moving to Arkansas, where Walmart’s corporate headquarters is located, has fueled Spann’s dedication to the company and inspiration to be a spokesperson for people with disabilities in the retail industry.
“I know that in the end, perseverance will pay off,” Spann said. “It’s my mission to help both individuals and organizations to bring education and inspiration about how to incorporate inclusion in their lives. Every day I aspire to work with the [Americans with Disabilities Act] department at Walmart to travel and speak, representing them and sharing my story about how working at Walmart has given me a sense of fulfillment.”
Spann has become the face of inclusion at Walmart, profiled in a 2009 training manual and most recently added in a new orientation guide. He is elated to be involved in changing the way the retail industry includes people with disabilities, but there is always more work to do.
When was the last time you saw a service dog and his owner on the retail sales floor? Don’t be shy!
Catch up with Spann and Finn on their website or on Twitter @spannsworld.
I am the author of “Saving Grace at Guantanamo Bay: A Memoir of a Citizen Warrior,” and three times mobilized U.S. Army Reserve Major (Retired). Join me on Twitter @mjgranger1, Facebook and my Blog.
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