The following is a speech given by Steve Degnan, Starkloff Disability Institute’s Board Chair in October 2017.


In 1970, while confined to a nursing home, 33 year-old Max Starkloff had a dream one night of an apartment building where people with significant disabilities, like himself, could live independently, have jobs, and enjoy the freedoms that everyone else took for granted. Max worked to make his dream a reality.  With Colleen as his wife and partner, they formed Paraquad, one of the nation’s first Independent Living Centers, and in 2003, they founded Starkloff Disability Institute, to focus on economic independence through employment.  

That is where I enter the picture.  My name is Steve Degnan and I am the Chief Human Resources Officer for Nestle Purina Petcare. I am here tonight because I believe strongly in SDI’s mission. I have been involved with them since 2010 and now proudly serve as Chairman of the Board.  

Max and Colleen achieved great strides in access to housing, transportation, and education through decades of work in the disability rights movement. But people with disabilities remained among the poorest of the poor. Why? Because they didn’t have jobs!  Max and Colleen knew that economic independence through employment was SDI’s next big step to help people out of poverty.

National statistics reveal a sobering truth:  

  • Nearly 80% of all working age people with disabilities are out of the workforce entirely.  
  • 54% of college graduates with disabilities are unemployed compared to only 14% of nondisabled counterparts.   

These statistics have remained unchanged for decades, even with the passage of the ADA, 27 years ago!   

You must be wondering why these numbers are so staggering. What is contributing to this epidemic?

First Studies show that 2 out of 3 people feel uncomfortable talking to a person with a disability. This applies to people in charge of hiring, resulting in bias and discrimination toward job candidates in the hiring process. With all of our efforts to eliminate this bias and reduce this number, it hasn’t changed.   

Secondly – Youth with disabilities do not have role models in or exposure to the business community. Very often, SDI finds adult job seekers with disabilities pursuing careers as social workers or in related fields because those are the careers to which they’ve been exposed. They need exposure to other careers!  

Another factor Often parents, society, or even the individual themselves will have low expectations on what they can do with their career due to their disability.  

And finally – Many people with disabilities don’t believe that they will be hired or welcomed at a company even when they have all the skills to do the job.  

SDI tackled these issues head-on, and achieved extraordinary success due to our unique, two-fold approach: preparing candidates and preparing companies.  

SDI’s first employment program, the Starkloff Career Academy, prepares job candidates with disabilities to be highly competitive job seekers through intense training exercises.  They include effective disclosing of one’s disability, writing professional-level resumes, developing interview skills, best practices in using social media, and job-focused networking. Practicing these skills with experts in the HR field – like my team at Purina – makes the Starkloff Career Academy an invaluable experience for all who participate. In 2015 the Career Academy was  awarded the “What’s Right with the Region” award. In our four years of operation, we have had over 150 graduates, and of these, 80% have gone on to keep their chosen jobs. This success rate of 80% is far above the state of Missouri’s average of 54%.   

SDI’s second employment program, Starkloff Disability Workplace Advisors, works with companies to be more disability-welcoming. Our professional trainers with disabilities provide learning exercises, adaptive technology demonstrations, roundtable discussions, workshops, and consulting. Nothing can change attitudes like spending time up close and personal with professional trainers with disabilities.  Some of the region’s top companies have participated in this program, which has resulted in SDI being recognized by the business community as the Workforce, Workplace Disability Advisor. 

These two programs provide solutions to those in the job market right now. But SDI recognized something needs to be done for young people before their attitudes and career aspirations are formed. And that’s just why SDI has developed its newest program, DREAM BIG. We need to engage kids before they leave high school, while they are still shaping opinions about themselves and the world, while they are still dreaming. We need to inspire them to think about careers that are in-demand, which will provide them economic freedom. We need to introduce them to the employers who are eager to meet and hire them.  We need to prepare them to follow that path with confidence and pride.  

DREAM BIG has two components: a week-long Career Camp in the summer – of which you are now seeing pictures – and work study opportunities throughout the school year. DREAM BIG, through site visits and activities, exposes students to careers they may never have otherwise considered and reinforces their future welcome at businesses across the region.  DREAM BIG equips them with confidence and curiosity to help them explore a world that everyone can access.  

The need for our program is further reinforced through Special School District of St. Louis transition team leaders – our program planning partners – that state, “There is no other program like this for college-bound youth with disabilities in the state.”  

In our first Dream Big Career Camp, held this past June, eight of the region’s top companies applied with great enthusiasm to welcome the DREAM BIG students. Those companies were: 

  • Boeing
  • Centene
  • Monsanto
  • Nestle Purina
  • Express Scripts
  • St. Louis Cardinals
  • Cortex Innovation Center
  • Bi-state Development Agency

And there are many more companies that have expressed their desire to be part of this program.  

With partners like these, supporters like so many of you, and a reputation of extraordinary achievement, I know SDI’s Dream Big program will become a reality too.   

Let’s help these young people DREAM BIG!

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© 2015 Starkloff Disability Institute