Workers with Disabilities Thrive at Custom Design Company, Gear Grove | WUWM 89.7 FM

Only four in ten working-age adults with disabilities are employed nationwide, according to the Brookings Institution, based in Washington, DC.

The small Milwaukee Gear Grove company has bridged this gap locally by regularly employing people with disabilities. This helps the company to fulfill its mission of producing handcrafted wooden furniture and designing spaces.

Lyle Stoflet, Jr. and Tom Daugherty are co-owners of Gear Grove. It’s on 27th Street, just south of Hampton Avenue in Milwaukee. They meet us in their store, where a room is filled with piles of reclaimed wood.

Credit Audrey Nowakowski / WUWM

Some of the salvaged wood at Gear Grove

Stoflet proudly explains that they know the history of all this wood.

“So we can say to our customers, ‘Hey, [the wood] was in this building which was built in 1908. [The building] was demolished, and now it’s your coffee table. ‘ He adds that a lot of their products are very unique, one of a kind.

“You’ll never see another one again,” he said. “Because it’s wood that is no longer cut. ”

The store’s employees are also unique. A third of its workforce declares a disability. They currently employ 18 people, and over the years they have had 10 employees who have declared a disability. After Stoflet and Daugherty started the business in 2012, they were approached by a human resources company who exposed them to public programs that help people with special needs find work opportunities.

“In the beginning, we had a very successful candidate because of the program,” he says. “He ended up being with us for 4.5 years. From not having a regular job before that, to becoming a rock star with us. Going from very part-time to full-time managing departments, and kind of a great growth story. “

After this success story, the company continued, hiring people with various disabilities. “Some are emotional disabilities, others are very obvious physical disabilities,” says Daugherty. “So that’s a very wide range of what different people have. He says they meet the person, see if they like him and see the potential. Then as the person adapts to the company, the company will adapt to the worker, this which ends up helping on both sides.


Credit Audrey Nowakowski / WUWM

Gear Grove gets creative with wooden parts.

“We’re finding that a lot of people find a niche that may take a month or two to come out and then they’ll find out, ‘Oh they love to do this, no one else likes to do that’ or ‘They do it better than anyone else. that we have never seen before. So it’s just about finding the right fit for the right person. ”Daugherty says. He says the right fit can be from in-store assembly positions to office assistants and marketing jobs.

Abe Bremer heads the laser department at Gear Grove and programs the machines. He says he has a mental health problem. He wears many hats for the company, but only after spending two years without a job after graduating. He says the company allowed him to speak openly about his mental health needs and allowed him to take advice. “I am a single father at the moment, my daughter’s mother has also just passed away,” he explains. “They were very accommodating with it, letting me go on dates and be there for my daughter.”

Bremer says stress stops him, but he’s able to be productive in a supportive environment. “It’s good to come here every day,” he said. “[To] I know I have a job, I know I make money, I know I support my family. Seeing the project when it’s finished is always a good thing too. “

One project Bremer is working on involves binary counting toys – which help children learn the basics of computer programming. He laser cuts them out of new wood for a client who works with MIT Design Labs. Bremer says he’s having physical issues as his bosses adjust, something he’s also seen helping new colleagues with physical disabilities.


Credit Audrey Nowakowski / WUWM

Gear Grove Binary Counting Toys

Daugherty says Gear Grove will create a personalized workspace for employees, allow them to work shorter days, and help them with transportation… whatever. “It’s really the right thing that makes them able to do the job and work with each individual to make those adjustments, so that they can be successful,” he says.

Daugherty adds that it’s ultimately about having an open mind, both in terms of creating designs and determining what their staff can bring to the table.

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