Remarks by: Jean-Pierre E. Mbei
Highmark Camp Hill, PA

Good afternoon everyone! The Honorable Secretary Butler, it is wonderful seeing you again! Governor Schweiker, thank you for inviting me to speak here today! I feel very humbled and honored by the responsibility bestowed upon me. Ms. Tarr, Mr. Nasuti, Mr. Haiduck, thanks for your excellent presentations! To the conference planning committee, a BIG THANK YOU for a job well done!

On behalf of the disability community, I want to thank the Governor for establishing this important committee, and for making this conference an annual event!

I congratulate all those who were honored here today. It is splendid! The event was beautiful, promising and emblazoned with hope. I salute all the people, the business community and business leaders (e.g., John Brouse, Highmark 's outgoing President and CEO, Dr. Kenneth Melani, Highmark's new President and CEO, Joyce Bender, President and CEO, Bender Consulting Services, Inc.), government representatives, whose vision, dedication, leadership, and courage have helped-and continue to help make hope a reality. Governor Schweiker, I salute you for making PA one of the leaders in implementing bold policies intended to provide Pennsylvanians with abilities employment opportunities and, by the same token, making them free! It is wonderful to be here today. History is in the making, and it is great to be part of, and witness this transformational process!

During the conference sessions, you have listened to excellent speakers. You have shared ideas, made wonderful suggestions. I am not going to talk about that. I would like to talk to you about two things. (1) The importance of this year's conference and (2) my personal experience with two outstanding employers: Highmark, Inc., and Bender Consulting Services, Inc. Both model the kind of partnership that today, we commit ourselves to building.

I love the theme of this year's conference ("Building Partnerships for Better Business") for more than one reason.

Building requires visualization, conceptualization, extensive planning and, naturally calls for ongoing maintenance. The idea of partnership calls for, and requires teamwork, and naturally teamwork can't be successful if members of the team do not accept diversity. Partnership is inclusive, and better partnership is innovative and future-oriented.

Building partnerships also means bringing under the same umbrella individuals, business, the federal and state governments, communities, and academia to work for the common goal.

The above to me means that we must not only build partnerships for better business, but also we must build partnerships for better business, better. Building partnerships for better business, better to me also means capacity building. It calls for human capacity building. It calls for business capacity building. It calls for organizational, institutional and educational capacity building. And we must build all that capacity, better.

Finally, building "Partnerships for better business", better to me means taking every step possible to ensure that no single human resource is wasted, or underutilized.

As you know, building professional capacity, that is, a constantly trained workforce and providing this workforce with competitive employment is probably the most difficult challenge facing us today. And while we look for ways to renew our workforce, and fill skill gaps, we are closing our eyes on a rich and untapped, human capital-- qualified people with disabilities.

And that is unacceptable.

Building partnerships for better business would mean so little if at all, if qualified people with disabilities were left out, simply because of their disabilities. Therefore, again, let us build partnerships for better business, better. Let us make sure that all Americans enjoy the American Dream. Let us ensure that our efforts result in true freedom for millions of people with abilities. And we can't sit and "gaze into a crystal ball" and try to imagine freedom for these people in the next millennium. For, to borrow William Gibson's words (quoted by David Thornburg, 1998), freedom is here, it just isn't evenly distributed and our challenge is to ensure equitable distribution of freedom.

We CAN, do that.

We have got a great deal of ideas to test in our community, corporate and governmental think tanks. We have got a great deal of tools to put to work for the good of our nation. We have got a rich human capacity to activate. There is no time to waste.

Former president, Bill Clinton, asked the following question on January 13, 1999 (Presidential Task Force on Employment of Adult with Disabilities): "When we've got the largest surplus in our history, the longest peacetime expansion in our history, perhaps the strongest economy we've ever had, if we cannot address this issue now, then when will we ever address it? Now is the time".

Our economy needs all of our resources!

In 1990, at the signing of the ADA, former President Bush said that together, $200 billion are spent annually in Federal, State, local and private funds to support American with disabilities-"in fact, to keep them dependent…" That, too, is unacceptable. "Well, when given the opportunity to be independent, they will move proudly into the economic mainstream of American life" Mr. Bush added.

And when given employment, not all are paid a just, competitive salary. Just like no work at all means no freedom, so does work without a competitive salary.

"Together, we must remove the physical barriers we have created and the social barriers we have accepted. For ours will never be a truly prosperous nation until all within it prosper" (Former President G. Bush, July 26, 1990).

Yes, it is time we put an end to dependence sustenance. And the only way to achieve this objective is by not only providing employment to qualified people with disabilities, but also paying them competitive salaries.

Highmark and BCS understand this beautiful truth so very well that, in her letter to American business leaders, Joyce stated that: "competitive jobs mean freedom". I am going to talk to you about this statement in a moment..

Therefore, to the business community, I say don't act like the Levite who asked: "if I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?" Let's ask, "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to me?" However, it is not about good samaritanism, because both Highmark and BCS hire only qualified people, or those with the potential to add value to the business of their customers. Therefore, I am proud to be where I am today, and I believe the same is true for my colleagues. And hiring qualified people with disabilities is not helping them. It is helping our economy. It saves billions of dollars to the Federal, State governments, to business, and to our community as a whole.

Therefore, our challenge is making a choice between continuing to spend billions of dollars in dependence sustenance and freedom by providing competitive jobs and competitive salaries to disabled people with skills.

As I said earlier, hiring qualified people with disabilities is not a threat to business. It is an appropriate business solution to a business challenge, and a logical response to a human/civil right issue. Hence the value of the statement, that: "competitive jobs mean freedom".

While individuals may have their definition of freedom, we all know that freedom is lost if we cannot afford rent. Freedom is lost if we cannot afford a car for transportation in order to earn a living. Freedom doesn't exist for those who are forced to live at the margin of society, or are regarded as inferior, pitied and distrusted. Simply, very simply, freedom does not exist for those on whom billion of dollars are spent annually not on capacity building, but on dependence maintenance! But, and most important, freedom has no value for those who take it for granted, for it must be earned!

At a personal level, allow me to interpret the statement that "competitive jobs mean freedom".

  • To me, above all, competitive employment means the opportunity to apply my skills, and earn a competitive salary that allows me to afford a decent living standard and, therefore, become a self-reliant, productive, and a contributing member of society. Specifically, this means that in due time:
    • I can rent an apartment, buy a house, make investment decisions, or afford a vacation.
    • I have the opportunity to lead a useful life and help others.
    • I have the opportunity to add value to, and grow professionally with a company that utilizes cutting edge technologies, and fosters a culture of excellence and high performance.
    • I have the opportunity to help my employer achieve its diversity objectives.
    • I have the opportunity to compete fairly with the best in my profession, on the basis of my skills content, and not my disability.
    • I have the opportunity to work at a company that nurtures knowledge, creativity, experience, high standards and hard work. And I am happy and proud to say that Highmark offers an environment that encourages and rewards these values.
    • Since the concept of "competitive jobs" is closely associated with freedom, and that freedom is not free, but earned, I must constantly challenge and remind myself that:
      • While working is a human right, competitive employment and competitive salary are not birthrights. I must earn them through hard work, demonstrated initiative, willingness to improve and recycle my skills so that I can adapt to a rapidly changing world.
      • So much trust placed upon me means more is expected of me
      • I must internalize high performance, because Lowell Starling VP, Infrastructure Management at Highmark loves to say, in a highly competitive world, "being a laggard will not pay".

Highmark and BCS represent a model partnership. My colleagues and I are a living testament of a successful, triangular partnership between Highmark, BCS, and the disability community. For Highmark, it is a testament of its commitment to a fair and equitable hiring policy that includes disabled professionals with abilities. In fact establishing a company such as BCS would have meant nothing more than business hype and showmanship without reliable partners such as Highmark!

While it is obvious that so much has been accomplished, today's accomplishments shouldn't overshadow current and future challenges. So, as we walk out of this room, let's remember that like the elegant sky at night, it not one huge star that makes it so awesome, but the twinkle of millions of tiny stars. And let's remember that, like late Dr. M. L. King, Jr. said, it is at night that we see stars!

Thus, to corporations that continue to wait and ask, "if I hire this person, what will happen to me?" I say, that is the wrong question. Instead, you should ask, what will happen to our business, what will happen to our economy, if we don't act now, if we don't give this rich pool of people a chance to prove what they can, do?

I want to give special thanks to special partners: To Highmark, my current employer, I give thanks for the trust placed in me! It is wonderful to see groups of Highmark employees taking sign language classes! The quality of support I receive from my department, project partners and leaders, is a reflection of senior management's policy and support. I am honored to have the opportunity to work at a great company! Thank you! To BCS and, especially my friend and former CEO, Joyce Bender, and to her dedicated staff, I say thanks for opening this new window of opportunities for us! Thanks for establishing the BCS/BCSC Alumni Association, and for asking me to chair it! For millions of people with disabilities, you are a role model, the route that leads to freedom. Governor Schweiker, to you and your collaborators, thanks so very much for making this day possible!

Yes, freedom arrived! It just isn't equitably distributed! And we can say with the Late Dr. M. L. King, let freedom ring in every city! Let freedom ring in every household! Let freedom ring for everyone! Let freedom be evenly distributed! And let the new partnership strengthen freedom and end dacapacitation!

"Thank you so very much."