Hundreds of people gathered at the Bayfront Convention Center to raise awareness for people with disabilities.

The Barber National Institute held a luncheon today to promote the importance of employing disabled individuals.

Former Governor Tom Ridge is a longtime advocate for people with disabilities and served as the keynote speaker.

The event also gave businesses the opportunity to learn about disability programs.

“Frankly, the challenges in regards to the person with a disability, they know they can work depending on the level of employment and what you expect of them. It’s for them to be given the opportunity,” said Former Governor Tom Ridge, keynote speaker, Disability Employment Luncheon.

In conjunction with the Barber National Institute helping create employment for those with disabilities in the community, the institute also offers a program to help enrich the services for those looking to seek job opportunities.

The Barber National Institute’s supported Employment Program gives workers a sense of independence and responsibility.

Rodrigo Barajas is a housekeeper at LECOM’s Health and Wellness Center.

The Barber National Institute is giving him the opportunity to maintain responsibilities even with a disability.

“To make people happy. To make me happy too,” said Barajas.

His mornings begin earlier than others at 5:30 a.m., where he keeps the facility clean and maintained, even stocking towels to prepare for guests.

Working for LECOM’s Wellness Center gives Barajas the first hand experience to work with others.

“They are such giving people. They do everything that they have to make our members happy, to make our staff happy. They are consistently here, performing at a higher standard of level than a lot of other employees,” said David Hopkins, Center Director, LECOM.

The institutes and LECOM work hand in hand to give those with a disability the opportunity for employment.

“They’re great employees. They’re always reliable, consistent in their performance. They bring a lot of joy to the members and staff,” said Hopkins.

Employment for those with a disability means more than just a paycheck, it helps develop skills for a lifetime.

“Think back to when you had your very first job, what that was like, what that felt like, and then what it brought to you. That’s the same feeling that everyone has,” said Carrie Knotis, Intellectual Disability Services for Barber National Institute.

The Supported Employment Program’s goal is to help individuals and the Erie economy grow stronger together.

The Barber National Institute works with over 300 employers to create job opportunities throughout Pennsylvania.