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  • 'We Look at Potential First. Their Disability Comes Second'

    One company has begun a hiring program for people with disabilities, and it is already seeing the rewards.
    by K. Mejia .

  • Clara Palma-Reyes (left) and Sara Ungson work at Southstar Drug stores while Brian Julian Borleo (second from left) and Ryan Poblete work at the company's head office. 

    Our country still has a long way to go in providing a reliable support system to employ people with disabilities (PWDs). The good news is some private companies and organizations are making efforts to cross barriers. 


    Last December 2016, Southstar Drug collaborated with Unilab Foundation's Project Inclusion and launched its PWD hiring program. Helped by Unilab Foundation's training, the PWDs were treated like any potential candidate for hire; yes, there are caveats, but the decision-making process is almost the same as hiring your typical employee.

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    “The problem right now in our society is we look at the disability first and nothing beyond that. But we look at their potential and expertise first, and their disability just comes second,” says Michael Sabino, HR and admin division manager of Southstar Drug. “Kasi kapag pinilit mo silang gawin ang isang bagay and hindi ‘yun ang kanyang expertise, the chances are higher it will be a failed effort. But if you can identify their strengths and their weaknesses, mapapag-trabaho mo siya one hundred percent.”

    Once hired, the PWDs enter at probationary level, a status that can change to regular employment if they pass the evaluation process. To date, there are 24 PWD employees with five assigned to the head office and the rest are in operations.

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    "You should never underestimate a child with special needs," says Ceny Ungson, whose daughter Sara, above, works at one of the Pasig branches of the drug store.
    At the Maybunga, Pasig branch of Southstar Drug, one of the PWD hires is Sara Ungson, a 36-year-old with Down syndrome who easily remembers loyal customers. With a big smile, she has her custom greeting down pat after she finishes bagging items: “Salamat po! Babalik po kayo ulit, ha?”


    The presence of PWDs at the drug stores has made a positive impact on customers. After all, when you go to a drug store, it’s not usually a happy occasion -- a loved one is likely sick, or his health is in need of attention. But Michael and Christine Tueres, the drugstore chain's deputy general manager, found that employing PWDs has had an uplifting effect.

    Michael puts it this way, ''Nakakalma sila when they see that a PWD inside the store is serving them.”

    Sara, for example, is a hugger, and she is super sweet on her fellow employees. Southstar management has found that her influence has rubbed off a little on her co-workers. Her branch has improved its customer service, and Christine says they have more empathy for the customers now. Both Michael and Christine agree that PWDs have taught their co-workers patience, understanding, and open-mindedness, just like how PWDs have taught their parents.


    A drug store visit is not usually a happy occasion. In Southstar's experience, having an employee like Clara (above, right), who work as a greeter as well, has an uplifting effect on customers and company morale. 

    “When she came into our lives, humaba ang pasensiya ko,” shares Bang Palma-Reyes, mother of Clara, a 22-year-old with Down syndrome who works for Southstar Drug’s Marikina Riverbanks branch. “Siya ang nagturo sa amin how to be more caring, how to be more patient, how to be more understanding, not only of differently-abled people but all people, in general.”


    Southstar Drug employees, who received awareness training and orientation from Unilab Foundation, have welcomed the program with open arms. “I told them that they didn’t have to give these new hires special treatment (as part of their initiative to give equal chances to PWDs like any other employee). But they do become excited to help the PWDs out,” says Michael. 

    The employees have quickly discovered, however, that their help, well, it's not often needed. As Michael points, these differently-abled individuals bring in unique skill sets. 

    From what we observed, employees like Ryan Poblete, who thrive on structure and routine, have taught co-workers patience and empathy. 


    As an example, Michael shares the story of Ryan Poblete, one of their employees with autism who works in the HR department. “He calls himself the filing manager. Hindi mo siya maiistorbo sa filing. He will not discuss how he organizes the files, but you will observe that once he goes inside the filing room, he will immediately know what to do.” 

    When Ryan first came in January, HR had two years’ worth of backlog files. Two months later, Michael was astounded to learn that Ryan was already organizing this year’s files! “Ang gagaling nila,” he says.

    "We trust them with confidential files,” adds Christine. "They remember the tiniest detail."

    Southstar Drug's hiring program is not a charity case. Brian Julian Borleo, who was matched to his current position according to his skills, has a chance to become a regular employee if he passes the evaluation process.   


    The paperwork Brian Julian Borleo deals with on a daily basis is intimidating for any new employee. But not only does he not lose any important files, he has figured it out where and to whom to give these files in a short amount of time. He knows the people in different departments so well that his supervisor can entrust him to answer the phone and transfer the person on the other end of the line to the right department. That's amazing when many with special needs find talking to people difficult. 

    "You should never underestimate a special needs child. Kasi hindi mo alam, naiitindihan ka pala niya,” shares Sara's mother, Ceny Ungson. “[Southstar’s program] is an answered prayer because any parent’s dream is for their children to be productive in society ultimately. “Nade-develop na yung pagiging independent [ni Sara]; she is relatively high-functioning. Our wish is that mag-level up pa ‘yung skills niya.”

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    “We are happy that we are given this chance. That it’s not a charity case and that our daughter works as an employee,” says Bang. “We’re all seeing the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, not only for Clara but the rest of the young group of kids like her. My heart is so full.”

    While Southstar’s program is still relatively new and they are only employing PWDs in their Manila branches, for now, the drug store chain is hoping for the program to be successful so that they can expand employment nationwide. 

    “It will not stop here, it will go beyond,” says Michael. “We are hoping and pushing forward so that we can create opportunities for all PWDs out of this project.”

    We're excited to let these differently-abled folks amaze us with what they can do. 

    This story was updated on March 30. Clara and Sara were misidentified in an earlier version.  

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