Starbucks partners living with disabilities share importance of bringing full selves to work

During the 75th observance of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, Starbucks recognizes the individual journeys of our partners (employees) and customers with disabilities, and values their perspective, work ethic and expertise. We know that making workplaces more accessible benefits everyone, not just those with disabilities.

While it’s been 30 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act became law, there is still work to be done. We are committed to learning more, helping overcome stigma and making sure all our partners, including partners with disabilities, have the best workplace experience possible. Meet three who are sharing their stories.

Erich Ho describes his cerebral palsy like this: his mind is racing ahead “on page 20” but his speech – slow and slurred because of his motor disability – is sometimes stuck behind “on page one.”

That gap between what he knows and how he’s perceived can be frustrating.

“There’s a lot of stereotypes around cerebral palsy, that if you have cerebral palsy, you’re stupid,” Ho says. “It took a while for me to prove myself. At home, at work, I’m OK, I know what I’m doing. But if I walk into a store, sometimes they treat you like you’re stupid, like you’re dumb. Sometimes I feel patronized.” 

"For every job I have, I’ve tried to bring my whole self to the job. It’s part of me.”

Ho, 47, was born in Hong Kong. He came to the U.S. with his family as a baby, grew up in North Seattle and went to the University of Washington, where he studied business. After college, he worked in California for six years as a software tester for Intel.

He joined Starbucks 15 years ago, intrigued after reading “Pour Your Heart into It,” the book written by former Starbucks chief operating officer Howard Schultz. Ho worked in staffing and accounts payable before joining his current team, where he’s a Starbucks partner recognition coordinator for internal performance and service awards such as store manager and district manager of the quarter.

Ho is also the program coordinator for the Starbucks Elite Athlete Program, which helps almost two dozen world-class amateur athletes who are also Starbucks partners with funding, sponsorships and flexible scheduling.

“I’m able to bring my whole self to work,” Ho says. “I think you need to bring that because we are in the people business. It’s a requirement, if you’re there just for the paycheck, you’re missing out. For every job I have, I’ve tried to bring my whole self to the job. It’s part of me.”

In 2004, Ho started working with the Alliance of People with disAbilities, a Seattle nonprofit which empowers people with disabilities to live more independently, first as treasurer, then as president. He describes it as “a great experience for me, leading the organization, trying to create change. My main goal was, as a nonprofit, you’re relying on government grants to cover your operating costs, but I wanted to get more private funding.”

Ho has been married for six years. His wife, Varee, is a speech-language pathologist who works at a rehabilitation clinic, helping people with cognitive issues or recovering from strokes or brain injuries learn, or relearn, how to swallow and speak. They met online. Now, they’re hoping to become foster parents.

Over the years, Ho has developed a series of strategies to help manage his cerebral palsy – improving his organizational skills, a sense of humor to defuse tension and discomfort and a philosophy of assuming positive intent. “It’s not always easy,” he says. “It took me a while to grow up and be more mature. I’m a late bloomer.

“What I’d like people to know is that you got to give people with disabilities a chance,” Ho says. “And I think we are doing better at it, as a society and as a company. We have to move beyond stereotypes. But that’s why I come to work every day.”

‘I’ll show you I can do it’  

There are plenty of words you could use to describe Marina Halberstam: avid hiker, commissioned artist, animal lover. One word she’d prefer you not use: inspiration.

“I’m just trying to get through life the same way everyone else is. I just happen to be a person with a disability,” Halberstam says. “I definitely feel like if I wasn’t, I would be very similar to you. If I’m honest, I forget that I’m missing multiple limbs.”

“No matter what I do, I’m not going to get hands, not going to get legs. No point being disappointed about it."

Halberstam, 26, a Starbucks barista in Westminster, Maryland, is a congenital quadruple amputee, which means she was born missing the ends of all four limbs – arms above the elbows, right leg at the ankle, left leg at the shin. She’s one of 10 siblings in her family, and one of five who are amputees adopted from orphanages in Russia. A sixth sister was adopted from Korea. The adult children now range in age from 42 to 25.  

They all grew up on a 50-acre farm in nearby Manchester, helping bale the hay and grow the corn, tending to all sorts of animals and showing them at the county fair. Halberstam raised a champion goat, McKenzie, and had a gift for being able to nurse even the sickest animal back to health.

As a kid, she played soccer and field hockey, running on prosthetic feet and using a prosthetic arm with a hook at the end, through which she’d slide her hockey stick. She baked lots of cakes, cracking the eggs with her arms and her chin. When she was 7 years old, her grandmother gave her a big art supply case, full of colored pencils and markers. “Years and years of practice” later, art has become both a creative outlet and a way to help manage anxiety. She recently sold several paintings.

Bonnie Halberstam, Marina’s mother, said she and her husband always wanted a big family. They knew some children in orphanages needed medical support and that they wanted to help. One adoption led to another. It was “always chaotic” around the farm, she recalls. “But they all helped each other. The older ones would help out with the younger ones. Everybody kind of worked together.

“We raised (the kids with disabilities) the same as the other kids, the same rules and the same expectations,” says Bonnie Halberstam, who went back to school 10 years ago to be a nurse. “If anything, I think the challenge was, people wanted to go easy on them. Sometimes people would say, ‘That’s OK, you don’t have to do that.’ But I didn’t ever feel like we needed to go easy on them, I feel like they wanted to be treated like all the other kids. They just kind of figured it out.”

Marina Halberstam applied at Starbucks a year ago, the day after doctors cleared her to work following surgery and therapy on her right shoulder. She’d torn some ligaments lifting boxes at a previous job. At the interview, she recalls, “I was very straightforward, I told Paula (the store manager) that I can do multiple jobs. Just give me a chance. I’ll show you I can do it.”

Together, they focused on her strengths – customer service, working the register, handling drive-thru orders, brewing big batches of coffee, passing out orders – instead of what she couldn’t do.

“Hiring a partner with a disability is no different than hiring anyone else,” says Paula McCauley, Marina’s store manager. “The accountability is the same. We are in the business of serving people, one cup at a time. Having a disability does not prevent you from being shoulder to shoulder with your team creating the experience.”

Halberstam is one semester away from getting an associates degree in business at Carroll Community College, and is also enrolled in the Starbucks College Achievement Plan, which offers benefits-eligible partners 100 percent tuition coverage through Arizona State University’s online program. She is studying tourism and recreation management and hopes to get a job on a cruise ship, which would help satisfy two other big passions: traveling and taking pictures.

Until then, Halberstam plans to keep doing what she enjoys: being creative, hiking with her friends and working on her driver’s license. She’s learning to drive by putting her right arm into a kind of custom cup that’s attached to the steering wheel, and she clicks an extended turn signal on and off with her left arm.

“I can’t change anything that happened,” she says. “No matter what I do, I’m not going to get hands, not going to get legs. No point being disappointed about it. No matter how disappointed I am, I’ll never change the fact that I am an amputee. I don’t know any other way of doing anything. I just got to embrace it and go for it and hope for the best.”

‘I’m not the only person out there like this’

Kyle Bryant was walking to the movie theater with his sister when his feet suddenly went numb. He didn’t have the strength or coordination to even keep his flip flops on.  After two long uncomfortable years, a podiatrist finally solved the mystery. He had Charcot-Marie-Tooth (CMT), a genetic disease that was damaging the nerves in his lower legs.

"That’s what got me out of my depression, what got me away from suicide. I realized it’s not as big of a deal as I was making it.” 

“After the diagnosis, I didn’t want to talk about it,” Bryant says of that transition point in his life, 10 years ago. “My business is my business and that’s it. I got closed off and it cost me mentally. I got to a point where CMT made me feel lesser than.”

Bryant, 33, hit rock bottom about four years ago, after the birth of his first child, his son. What should have been a moment of celebration became a time of doubt. CMT is a hereditary disease without a cure; his paternal grandmother and her brother had it too, he learned after his diagnosis. Bryant was having trouble walking and doctors had told him it was a matter of when, not if, he’d need a wheelchair. Afraid he’d passed on CMT to his son, he contemplated suicide for a time.

Bryant, a Starbucks coffee roaster at the Sandy Run Roasting Plant in Gaston, South Carolina, says his disability story has been as much about his mental health as it has his physical. The fight to get to a better place started with some raw conversations with his wife, Laura, a director at a marketing agency.

“My wife basically told me anyone can be born with any type of disability,” Bryant remembers. “Anything can happen, but you can’t let that stop you from having kids or being a great parent. She helped me realize if I can’t get a hold of this and how I approach my mental health, then I can’t be a good example for my kids. She didn’t hold back on the tough love.”

Bryant and his wife now have two children who don’t show any signs of CMT. Having CMT doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be passed on. He says he has been and will continue to be truthful and honest with them and will help them navigate whatever issues may arise.

Born and raised in South Carolina, Bryant grew up active and playing sports – football, golf and soccer. He describes moving fast through his youth – “in the moment” and “spontaneous.” He’s worked in manufacturing since graduating from high school.

At Starbucks, where he’s worked for eight years, he’s one of the roasting system operators. On a good 12-hour shift, he helps move close to 100,000 pounds of coffee – roasting the raw dried green beans in 700-800 pound batches and cooling them down before sending them on to be bagged, tagged and placed on pallets. He works at a stainless-steel table on the factory floor where he can see and smell what’s going on, diagnostics running on three monitors.

“A company that’s as big as Starbucks, there’s less than 100 roasters in the entire network,” Bryant says. “There’s a sense of pride that you can get that much product out the door, especially when you go to a store or you see a line at the drive thru, just knowing you played a hand in that.”

CMT leads to problems with balance, tripping and ankle sprains. The muscles in Bryant’s lower legs are atrophying, and he also experiences foot drop, an inability to lift the front part of his feet above his ankles. Bryant uses carbon-fiber braces to walk, but sometimes can’t go far because of fatigue and pain. He compares the tingling in his feet to ant bites. Some people with CMT also have symptoms in their hands.

But he’s got a different approach to his condition now. Soon after the conversations with his wife, he started seeing a counselor and plugged into a local Charcot-Marie-Tooth Association support group. He now leads the Columbia, South Carolina chapter. At work, he organized a CMT awareness and fundraising event, and he says co-workers and managers have been extremely supportive.

Bryant hopes to be a company recruiter someday, and he’s been mentored by a senior recruiter for the last three months, going over training documents together and even sitting in on a phone screening to help him gain experience.

“I’m not the only person out there like this,” Bryant says. “It became much easier once I opened up. Seeing the support I had, being open and honest with my wife, not being afraid to talk about it. That’s what got me out of my depression, what got me away from suicide. I realized it’s not as big of a deal as I was making it.” 

CMT has also increased his empathy and perspective. “Seeing the bigger picture, not taking things for granted anymore. I consider myself lucky since I’m able to work,” Bryant says. “It made me realize everybody is going through something. It’s super cliché, but it’s the truth.”

For more information on disabilities and the workplace, please see the following resources:

ABC – “COVID-19 pandemic reversed decades of employment gains for disabled, but advocates see glimmers of hope“

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Starbucks names first North American Barista Champion: Darcy Todd of Texas