For Jim McCann, founder of 1-800-FLOWERS.COM, Inc., the desire to make a difference in the lives of people with disabilities is personal: His brother, Kevin, was born with developmental disabilities. Jim was looking for a charitable cause to support when a call came from Walter Stockton, CEO of Independent Group Living Home (IGHL), where Kevin was a resident.
So, in 2015, in partnership with IGHL, the McCann family helped start Smile Farms, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that creates meaningful jobs in agricultural settings for adults with disabilities. In addition to its impactful work with the disabled community, Smile Farms has made a splash in the artisan goods space. Its first signature product, Heat with Heart™ hot sauce, is available on the 1-800-Flowers.com Marketplace, along with a curated selection of other products created by individuals with disabilities.
Other Marketplace sellers connected with the disabled community include John’s Crazy Socks, Collettey’s Cookies, and One for All Gifts. These entrepreneurs show the world the power of people with disabilities, while also raising money for and awareness of their businesses. “Eight in 10 disabled adults are unemployed, compared to three in 10 with no disability,” says Paige Melley, manager of Marketplace marketing & merchandising. “We want the world to know that people with disabilities can and do create products that are just as good as, or even better than, anyone else.”
The spotlight on these makers is even brighter in October, which is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), a celebration of the positive contributions of people with disabilities in the workforce.
History of National Disability Employment Awareness Month
National Disability Employment Awareness Month dates to 1945, when Congress enacted a law declaring the first week of October “National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week.” Its initial purpose was to rally public support for and raise awareness of employment for members of the armed services, who were returning from war with disabilities.
Subsequently, President Harry S. Truman created the “President’s Committee on National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week,” to facilitate activities commemorating the event. In one letter to committee members, President Truman wrote: “I have taken great interest in watching public attention increase and grow each year as public spirited citizens joined with Federal, State and community officials to bring to the attention of our nation’s people and employers the true worth of our impaired workers…Please be assured of the continued personal interest of your President and your Government in your year around efforts to place more trained and capable disabled veterans and handicapped non veterans in the offices, farms and factories of our land.”
In the following years, under the succeeding administrations of Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Reagan, additional executive orders expanded the scope of the law (and renamed the designation several times over). In 1988, the week-long event was expanded to the entire month of October and renamed National Disability Employment Awareness Month.
The more customers we reach, the more jobs we create, which means more employment for people with differing abilities.
Mark X. Cronin
Co-founder, John’s Crazy Socks
Raising awareness, taking action
Raising awareness, however, is only part of NDEAM’s mission. A commitment to the prosperity of people with disabilities in the employment sector requires intention and action year-round. The Office of Disability Employment Policy suggests several ways employers can advocate for people with disabilities, including hosting learning sessions that give employees the opportunity to learn about disability-related subjects and interviewing students with disabilities during college recruiting events.
But the work doesn’t end with places of employment; individuals have many ways they can advocate for people with disabilities, including by patronizing their businesses.
Making a difference during NDEAM
In addition to Smile Farms, a number of other Marketplace sellers are doing their part to advocate for employees with disabilities, as well as support National Disability Employment Awareness Month. Here are three of them.
John’s Crazy Socks
Co-founded by Mark X. Cronin and his son, John Lee Cronin — a young man with Down syndrome — John’s Crazy Socks was inspired by John’s love of fun, colorful socks, or what he calls his “crazy socks.” The father and son team started the company seven years ago as a social enterprise with a mission of “spreading happiness.”
Today, more than half the company’s employees have a differing ability. “We love being part of the 1-800-Flowers.com Marketplace and are grateful for the opportunity,” Mark says. “They are helping us reach more customers, which means we get to spread more happiness. And the more customers we reach, the more jobs we create, which means more employment for people with differing abilities.”
In honor of NDEAM, John — the company’s chief happiness officer — and Mark will speak at events during the month of October, as well as reach out to corporate leaders and elected officials to promote employing people with differing abilities and eliminating the subminimum wage.
Collette Divitto was born in 1990 with Down syndrome. After high school, she sought employment, but after going on job interview after job interview, she still couldn’t find work. So, she decided to start her own business baking cookies — a passion she developed after taking classes in high school — calling it Collettey’s Cookies.
The company took off and now employs 15 people, several of whom have disabilities. “She has turned her success into a mission of creating job opportunities for people that are faced with the same rejection,” says Rosemary Alfredo, Collettey’s director of PR and marketing, and Collette’s mom.
In addition to being the founder, creator, baker, and CEO of Collettey’s Cookies, Divitto launched in 2018 the nonprofit organization Collettey’s Leadership Programs, which offers free workshops and mentoring programs for people with disabilities who desire to live independently. Alfredo says, “Her story is about championing others and destigmatizing the word ‘disability,’ with the hopes to encourage the start of more opportunities. Her mission is for her story to help people with disabilities to live full, employed, and inclusive lives, like she does.”
One For All Gifts
Another seller with an equally noble mission is One For All Gifts. Not yet three years old, One For All features a range of items — from artwork to jewelry and pottery — made exclusively by neurodiverse entrepreneurs and social enterprises actively employing differently abled adults. Sean DeMarco, a young man on the autism spectrum, and his mother, Theresa DeMarco, launched the shop in October 2020 so Sean could continue to run his framed movie-poster business, Decades Collectibles, uninterrupted in the wake of the pandemic.
“We wanted to give other entrepreneurs the opportunity to sell their items as well,” Theresa says. “Our motto is ‘A shared space with a shared purpose,’ and we are grateful every day to celebrate the potential of differently abled entrepreneurs, elevate the opportunity for dignified employment, and advocate for meaningful community.”
One For All Gifts started selling its customized gift bundles curated from more than 60 entrepreneurs in the Marketplace in early 2023. During NDEAM, One For All will host pop-up shops in front of its brick-and-mortar location (in Southold, New York, near the eastern tip of Long Island) so customers can meet some of the artisans in person. “Our gift shop has grown into an extraordinary collective of diverse entrepreneurs,” Theresa says. “We are proud to share their stories!”