Discovering Strengths and Embracing Abilities – My Peaberry Story

A Peaberry is an agricultural defect in a coffee cherry. In 5 to 10 percent of all coffee cherries, only one, more rounded bean develops, rather than two beans side-by-side. The Peaberry was historically discarded by some coffee roasters. The Peaberry was even viewed as damaged, flawed and less valuable. However, today we know the Peaberry is more desirable because the round shape allows for more uniform and consistent roasting. Coffee Masters often prefer the Peaberry for its concentrated and unique flavors. When we rethink the Peaberry, we can fully appreciate these assets.

Like the Peaberry, people with disabilities have often been undervalued. The word “disability” suggests a defect or flaw. We all too often focus on the difficulties of physical and mental conditions. However, when we rethink disability, we can fully appreciate the unique assets that make these people a premium in the workplace.

Someone with diabetes may meticulously track blood sugar levels, carefully plan each meal and prepare in advance for emergencies. This Peaberry with diabetes has the transferable skills to make her the very best project manager. Someone with depression may be conscientious of their own actions, observant of triggers and empathetic towards others. This Peaberry has the essential transferrable skills to effectively identify conflict and deescalate customer concerns. In fact, this Peaberry is not just good enough to do the job, but perhaps the very best candidate because of a disability.

I haven’t always viewed disabilities this way. I have often approached my disability as a defect to overcome or a flaw to downplay. I battled to prove I was good enough despite my disability. I worked hard to overcompensate for my weaknesses. I desperately tried to distract from my obvious deficiencies.

As a child, I ran slower than the other kids. The mossy smell of damp April mornings in Seattle still brings me back to my elementary school field, where I finished last place, every time, in our required one-mile run. When I smell mold and fresh grass, for a moment I’m alone on the field with the PE teacher and her stopwatch, long after my classmates had returned indoors.

When I was 8 years old, the doctors said, “Muscular dystrophy. No cure. Confined to a wheelchair.” I was a defective Peaberry. Stubbornly, I continued to play t-ball and soccer. I took ballet and jazz dance classes. My muscles continued to deteriorate. I tripped and fell and got up, then tripped and fell again and got up again. I had skinned elbows, bloodied knees, and a bruised spirit.

Although my weakening muscles could never strengthen, I could exercise my mind. I adapted to my changing abilities by turning my attention from playing sports to reading books, writing essays, studying language, learning more, and working hard.

By the time I applied to study abroad at a university in Spain, I was only able to walk a few feet at a time and used a power chair outside of the house. I diligently researched and prepared for the physical challenges of living abroad. But I was unprepared for the emotional challenges of inaccessibility.

Sidewalk curbs, cobblestones, narrow doorways, one-person elevators, inaccessible buses, inaccessible museums, inaccessible stores and inaccessible bathrooms for discarded Peaberries like me. After one month, inaccessibility convinced me that I was nothing more than a defect.

It was raining hard on my way to school that morning. I came to the end of a sidewalk without a ramp. As I attempted to back my wheelchair off the curb, my chair hit the street at an awkward angle. I was suddenly lying with my face smashed against the cold, wet cobblestones, and my toppled wheelchair at my side. Those cobblestones crushed my self-worth and the rain magnified my weaknesses.

Just like that little girl alone on the field in last place, I had to focus on my abilities to finish the race. I adapted to the unfamiliar, I researched the most accessible routes, I studied the Spanish language, and I learned that my disability also gifted me strengths. I embraced my Peaberry premium.

Five years later, the Washington State Supreme court admitted me to the practice of law. I began my legal career in employment discrimination as an investigator and then as an administrative judge. My career offered me insight into the best and worst of employment. I saw hostility and disrespect. My work was necessary, but it was also reactionary. I was responding to the harm. What I wanted to do was prevent it from happening in the first place.

Starbucks might seem like an obvious place to start my career search for a Seattleite. My attraction to working for Starbucks was largely based on what I knew about the company from Howard Schultz’s book, “Onward.” Here was the president, chairman and ceo who shared a personal story about the impact of his father’s injury on his job. Here was a company that took action by offering healthcare benefits to full and part-time employees. Here was a workforce comprised of people with varying abilities, who were recognized as integral to the business.

Nearly two years ago, I was hired as a manager for the Equal Opportunity (EO) Initiatives team within Law & Corporate Affairs. Our team is responsible for removing barriers to employment for job seekers and partners of all backgrounds, including women, minorities, veterans and people with disabilities. Starbucks empowers us to actively diagnose potential barriers and to develop strategic initiatives and solutions to promote the principal of equal opportunity.

My partner journey followed a path of transformation in how our nation interprets disability law. For the first time in the history of the US, the federal government is requiring its contractors to measure the success of their efforts to hire and retain people with disabilities. Starbucks, like many other companies, will aspire to meet the government target of seven percent for hiring and employing people with disabilities. The change gives us the opportunity to evaluate our current efforts and innovate for the future of disability inclusion.

I still struggle sometimes to appreciate the assets I have because of my own disability. I am now unable to take a step, unable to shower on my own, and unable to drive a car. Yet every time I meet a partner who shares the strengths they have gained because of disabilities, I am reminded of the Peaberry premium. From a district manager who is deaf and demonstrates the power of direct communication, and a barista with a learning disability who taught me how to be a more effective trainer to a manager with cancer who shows me how to prioritize. We are coming together around the shared human experience of disabilities. They make me proud to be a Peaberry and proud to be a Starbucks partner.

By Jessica Rafuse, Starbucks manager EO initiatives

Starbucks was recently honored as the US Business Leadership Network’s “Employer of the Year.” Here is a video of the award presentation on October 1, 2014.

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Starbucks Hot Java Cool Jazz is a testament to the value of the arts