In January, I had the audacity to write about difficult working situations. Then in the March issue, Matt Michel's “The Rant” column reminded us of what a difficult life situation really is. He wrote about a man named Joe Groh who was severely injured in a bicycling accident and is now a quadriplegic.

My column isn't about Joe, although I hope each of you can find the time and maybe even a dime to visit Joe's web-site (joegrohscifund.org) and make a contribution. This column is about employing the disabled, whether male, female, blind, paralyzed, hearing impaired, brown, green, white or pink, in the HVACR industry.

Your first response is, “How can a disabled person get into an attic or basement?” Or, “What could a physically disabled person possibly do in my business?”

On that note, I want to introduce you to Tony Buhagiar of Tony's Refrigeration, Heating and Air Conditioning in Anchorville, MI. Tony is a contractor like many of you. He runs a medium-sized, primarily-residential company and has owned his business for over 19 years. But unlike most of you, Tony has owned and worked in an HVAC company from a wheel chair for 18 years. Don't tell Tony that he can't run a service call or make a sales call!

Tony was a service technician before starting his business in 1990. One year later, he was injured in a diving accident that left him unable to walk and with minimal use of his hands and arms.

For those of us with fully functioning bodies to think that Tony was lucky is absurd — but Tony was lucky because he owned an HVAC business rather than worked in one. Why do I say this? The National Organization on Disability concluded in a 2003 study that 68% of Americans with disabilities were unemployed, despite two-thirds stating they were willing and able to work.

When was the last time you considered hiring a physically disabled person? Research on reactions to disabled people found that most people felt genuinely concerned or sorry for a disabled person, but that was coupled with a feeling of discomfort and embarrassment.

Perhaps that discomfort or embarrassment is what keeps us from wanting to consider having a physically disabled person working in our companies. From observing both myself and others interacting with Tony and Joe, discomfort or awkwardness is a common reaction.

But guess what? That problem is ours. Neither Joe nor Tony want your sympathy — they want your confidence — because they have contributions to make.

How does Tony make service calls? By actually going on service calls with a young, inexperienced technician who has fully functioning hands and legs, but minimal technical expertise. He conducts on-the-job training by teaching that technician how to diagnose and troubleshoot problems.

Sometimes, Tony makes service calls by talking his technicians through difficult technical situations on the phone.

Isn't it interesting that the physically sound technician is not considered disabled even though he can't solve a technical problem without Tony's help?

One employer of several disabled people said, “An advantage I didn't realize I would get is that if you're a person with a disability, you have no choice but to think outside the box — I've got very creative people used to having challenges thrown at them in every aspect of their lives.”

If there is one thing our industry needs it is creativity, particularly in a down economy.

How does Tony make a sales call? Primarily, his customers come to him at his place of business. (On Venus, we call that retailing.) What a concept!

Showrooms and equipment displays have been preached about in this industry for years. When a customer comes to your place of business, you immediately distance yourself from the one-man show who works out of his truck. It allows the customer to kick the tires. The customer can actually see running models of the type of system that will be installed in their home or business.

As Dawn Dusette, a long time employee of Tony's says, “Customers don't mind coming to our office because they get to see what will be installed in their homes. And then, when they see Tony in a wheel chair, they have an interesting reaction. They are more willing to talk to Tony. Not out of sympathy, but out of confidence. This man has persevered and won. Heck, installing a heating or air conditioning system is a piece of cake compared to what Tony has already experienced in life.”

Yes, the economy is tough, but perseverance and creativity will always win. Perhaps hiring non-traditional people to work in your business won't hurt either.

Vicki LaPlant has been involved in the HVAC industry nearly 30 years as a trainer and consultant. In addition, Vicki serves on the editorial advisory board of Contracting Business magazine. She can be reached by email at vicki@vleishvac.com or by phone at 903/786-6262.