At the Ability First 2014 Champion Awards, held on November 7, 2014, Dennis Winkler was awarded with the Advocacy Award for continuously and tirelessly promoted the concept of ability first, supporting people with disabilities in their efforts to obtain competitive and meaningful employment, and bringing new and innovative perspectives to the workplace. The Champion Awards celebrate and honour businesses, companies, organizations and individuals that have hired and retained people with disabilities in London and area.
On winning the Advocacy Award, “I am extremely pleased but in a way feel guilty for getting recognition for something that helps my business. For me, it is a routine way of doing business and I’ve always had employees with disabilities. Recognition is not why I do it, but when you get an award it’s a nice thank you from the community. The best part of these awards is regardless who wins, it helps bring attention to the hiring of individuals who may have a disability.”
Dennis recently invited us to Winks Eatery, a casual style restaurant located at the corner of Albert Street and Richmond Street in the heart of Richmond Row in London, Ontario. His son Adam owns Winks and Dennis is the General Manager, a setup Dennis especially likes as they get to work together everyday. Winks has been in operation for nine years and will enter its 10th year on March 12, 2015 thanks to a wonderful work team and very loyal clientele. While the snow fell outside, Dennis shared his many years of experience working with and advocating for people with disabilities.
In 1970, at the age of 16, Dennis started working at McDonalds as a server and part of the maintenance crew. He worked with the company for 12 years, managing his own location at 19 and becoming Senior Supervisor for the area.
In the early 1980s, he was asked to assist in opening eleven Burger King franchises from Ontario to the east coast and he jumped at the chance. Shortly after, he was offered the opportunity to purchase his own Burger King franchises and owned all ten locations in London, ON.
Dennis was first introduced to working with people with disabilities at McDonalds. When he began opening his own Burger King restaurants he embraced the concept of hiring for ability first as a sound business practice. At first he believed it was a nice thing to do to help people, but soon found he received more. His employees with disabilities benefited his business by creating a better work environment, improving morale and getting the job done. He emphasizes the benefit of hiring people with disabilities for business owners and says, “I have seen their hard work, punctuality and positive attitude to other employees. There is no downside to hiring people with disabilities.”
Employers worry employees with disabilities will be injured more often. In fact, Dennis has never had a case of any one with a disability injured on the job and wishes he could say the same for all his employees. He believes employees with disabilities have more life skills and training geared around safety, as well as common sense.
Another misconception Dennis hears is that employees with disabilities will be late a lot or not show up for work. He has found the exact opposite is true; employees with disabilities are far more punctual and conscientious about being to work on time as they appreciate their job and do not take it for granted. Since opening Winks nine years ago, eight of the original employees still remain. This is rare in the restaurant industry where kitchen turnover is notoriously high.
Speaking to a fear many employers hold of having to fire an employee with a disability, “People shouldn’t have that as a fear because the first thing to do is block out of their mind this person has a disability and treat them as any individual. How would you fire someone that didn’t have a disability? The same rules apply. So if you did hire someone with a disability and they don’t work out, you will have all the proper methods that you’ve been trained on over the years. You’re not going to look like the bad guy if for some reason it doesn’t work out. Just follow the same labour laws and rules you’d follow with every employee. Don’t put them into a special bracket in your own mind because they have a disability, treat them the same,” advises Dennis. “And if you’re dealing with an agency, ask that agency to work with you if you need coaching or if the person isn’t working out.”
Dennis also says sometimes employees with disabilities are nervous starting out, especially if they have never worked in the food and beverage industry before, and they might need some motivation and discussion. He observes, “I’ve seen that happen before where they’ll be so scared coming in because it’s a new world and they want the job so bad they’re afraid of making a mistake. Sit them down as you would any employee to talk with them and say, “You’re doing a good job but you could improve on this” and it turns around.”
In his advice to other employers Dennis recommends, “Don’t be afraid to hire someone with a disability. Talk to others who do employ. Hire someone with a disability and you quickly realize that every person has the ability to do something.” He talks about small businesses being afraid to take a chance, and hopes successful employers will become the reference for these small business owners. He says they need an extra push, to be convinced, and once they get started they will see the success.
Look at the job you want to fill and hire for that position, Dennis advises. He says everyone has a different skill set, for instance he could never be a doctor or work in a factory but he thrives in the restaurant industry. He notes that it is common business sense to hire the individual for the position you need filled.
Community Living London has been a great resource for Dennis. He says they find the individuals, help train them and monitor their progress. If you ever have any issues or need assistance, they are available even after years of employment. Dennis advises working with a good Partner in Employment, such as Community Living London, as they help people with disabilities gain meaningful employment and business owners succeed.
Dennis has served two terms on the Community Living London Board of Directors and also been involved with the Special Olympics, which were originally started here in London. These experiences have given him additional opportunity to see the capabilities of individuals rather than their disability.
Dennis talks about the beginning of a wave of awareness, where people with disabilities are finally being seen for their abilities - giving an example of Investigative Computer Specialist Patton Plame on the television show NCIS: New Orleans, played by Daryl Mitchell. Both the character and the actor portraying him happen to be in wheelchair, sending the message that people with disabilities are are also extremely high functioning.
This is a message Dennis feels more employers need to share, “Through education and organizations such as yours. Employers have to shout from the rooftops to wake the rest of the business community to the successes that are out there.”
I hire for Ability First because you will benefit from their work. Employees with disabilities work hard, are loyal, punctual and have a great attendance record. Your other staff will have a change in attitude for the better.