DEO Press Releases

Exceptional Employers Honored by State

Oct 04, 2017

TALLAHASSEE, FL—Ten businesses that hire people with disabilities were recognized by the state of Florida today for being exceptional employers of people with special abilities. The businesses from around the state were honored with a plaque made by individuals with unique abilities. The 12th annual celebration was held at Tallahassee City Hall as part of recognizing October as Disability Employment Awareness Month.

The Agency for Persons with Disabilities (APD), Blind Services, and Vocational Rehabilitation presented the Exceptional Employer Awards to companies that have made a strong commitment to employing people with special abilities.  Event sponsors were the Able Trust, City of Tallahassee, and RESPECT of Florida.

The 2017 award-winning businesses are:

  • Boca Raton Resort and Club
  • Cunningham Pest Control of Palm Beach County
  • Dosatron of Clearwater
  • Embassy Suites of Ft. Lauderdale
  • Martin Health System of Stuart
  • Piggly Wiggly of Quincy
  • Planet Fitness of Panama City
  • Publix
  • Sodexo (Tallahassee, St. Petersburg, and Daytona Beach)
  • The Women’s Center of Central Florida

APD Director Barbara Palmer said, “I am so excited to recognize these 10 exceptional businesses today. These deserving companies have made a commitment to employing a diverse workforce. These businesses know that individuals with special abilities are some of the most dedicated employees you can find.”

Cissy Proctor, Executive Director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, said, “The most important issue to families across Florida are jobs. All individuals, regardless of abilities, want good jobs to provide for themselves and their families. I am proud to see these Exceptional Employer Award winners and so many other businesses including all individuals in the workforce. I hope additional companies will see that there are many people with unique and diverse abilities ready to contribute to our state.”

“The Division of Blind Services strives to ensure that more employers recognize the benefits of hiring blind and visually impaired individuals and the many ways they can contribute to our economy,” said Division of Blind Services Director Robert L. Doyle III. “Persons with disabilities, just like their peers, have talents and skills that will further build on and advance Florida’s workforce. I encourage more businesses to follow in the footsteps of today’s honorees.”

Director of the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Allison Flanagan said, “We are so honored to recognize these employers who are leading the way in building an inclusive workforce and looking beyond the disability. Individuals with disabilities offer a broad pool of talents and tend to stay on the job longer than employees without disabilities. Given the opportunity, individuals with disabilities are able to show their skills, loyalty, and determination and become successful members of the community. Without the support of outstanding employers, the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation would not have been able to assist nearly 6,000 individuals in the last year to successfully obtain or maintain employment. Hiring people with disabilities is a win-win for everyone!”

Speakers at the Exceptional Employer event included Tallahassee Kentucky Fried Chicken Restaurant employee Klaressa Williams and AMC Theatres employee Walker Bullington.  Others providing remarks were Department of Economic Opportunity Chief of Staff Chris Peary, Tallahassee Commissioner Curtis Richardson, Director of ABLE United John Finch, and President and CEO of the Florida Association of Rehabilitation Facilities Suzanne Sewell.

Here is information on the 10 winning companies:

Boca Raton Resort and Club

The Boca Raton Resort and Club offers first class accommodations to individuals visiting the area. The Boca Resort began hosting a Project Search in 2013 and has continued the program. Project Search trains students in job skills, then allows them to gain real world experience doing the job. Boca Resort has hired 10 students who have graduated from the program. Four of those students were Vocational Rehabilitation customers too. The Resort received a 100 percent employment award from National Project Search because all the students landed jobs this year. The students work in the kitchen, laundry, banquet storeroom, lobby, spa, pool area, as stewards in various areas, and Human Resources. The resort makes sure they learn all the skills needed to be a successful employee in a hotel or restaurant, then they hire many of them to work there.


Cunningham Pest Control

This very small business of one was in high demand last year. The owner Scott Cunningham decided to double his workforce and hired a young man, Walter Burks, to help him. Burks, who happens to have a disability, was interested in finding a long-term career. It turns out that it was the perfect match. Burks is learning professional skills he can use in the future. Cunningham now has a loyal and reliable employee who is helping his business be successful.



This company has been hiring people with disabilities for 20 years. Dosatron manufactures water-powered chemical dispensers that are used by a variety of industries including drinking water, irrigation, and in animal health. Recently the company held a retirement party for a woman with unique abilities who had worked there for more than 20 years. They currently have two individuals on the payroll with special abilities. The culture of the company is extremely inclusive. Everyone is treated with respect. Dosatron has a close working relationship with the Arc of Tampa Bay.


Embassy Suites of Ft. Lauderdale

This employer has hired four people who are alumni of the Dan Marino Foundation Campus which is a post-secondary school for young adults with developmental disabilities. The Embassy Suites staff provide natural supports to employees with special abilities. The Marino Foundation works with this employer to meet employees needs whether it be additional training or on-the-job supports. The Embassy Suites served as an internship site over the summer which exposed Marino Campus students to many careers in the hotel industry. One individual with unique abilities who was having a hard time achieving success in the past, has now been employed for more than four years at Embassy Suites.


Martin Health System

Martin Health System has hired 19 interns with unique abilities since beginning its Project Search program in 2010. Three of these employees have been employed for more than seven years. These employees work in vital areas of the hospital. Two people work in Surgical Services assisting with the Operating Room. One person works as a Patient Care Technician. The other assists with sterilization and the sorting of instruments, and cleans the operating rooms. Five employees work in the Nutrition Services Department as a cashier, steward, and Patient Services Associates. One employee works in the Materials Department delivering hospital supplies to other departments. Another person works in the Environmental Services Department.


Piggly Wiggly of Quincy

This grocery store has gone out of its way to assist young people sometimes with significant disabilities, to learn job skills. Over the years, more than 30 people with differing abilities have been hired. Piggly Wiggly of Quincy works collaboratively with the community including the school system, Vocational Rehabilitation, and the Agency for Persons with Disabilities. All individuals are given an equal opportunity to excel and achieve success.


Planet Fitness of Panama City

This business is making a difference when it comes to hiring people with disabilities. Planet Fitness has hired five individuals with disabilities since opening in 2014 with four individuals still on the payroll. One employee is in their third year of employment. This employer is more than willing to make accommodations for its employees. Some of the accommodations include job carving, flexible schedules, allowing longer training times, and adding pictures to daily work schedules to help those with limited reading ability. Planet Fitness also participates in a summer on-the-job training program for individuals with unique abilities.


Publix Supermarkets

Over the past five years, Publix has hired 1,190 people through the Vocational Rehabilitation program. Just in 2017, Publix has hired 319 individuals. Publix is a great corporate partner supporting Special Olympics annually, with more than $3 million just this year. At one store in Palm Beach Gardens, six people with special abilities are employed, with one person delivering more than 10 years of service. Another employee with autism started as a bagger, and now has been promoted to cashier. His mother says she always knew Publix highly valued its customers. She has now learned that Publix values its employees just as much.



Sodexo is another large employer of people with all types of abilities. This company provides food service at colleges and universities. Sodexo has hired 62 individuals through VR in the past five years. On the Florida State University campus in Tallahassee, there are eight people with unique abilities. There are two individuals APD serves working at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus. Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach has hired numerous individuals with physical and intellectual disabilities, including three from the Arc of Volusia. All of these campuses have made significant adjustments to include people with special abilities in their workforces. With the increased flexibility, these people are succeeding in their jobs, and bringing great value to their employers and the bottom line.


The Women’s Center of St. Cloud

The Women's Center is one of the largest private practices in Central Florida specializing in obstetrics and gynecology. This business goes the extra mile to teach job skills and hire people with all types of abilities. Medical Director and Founder of The Women's Center is Dr. Douglas Gearity. Job Coach Ana Morris mentioned to Dr. Gearity what she did for a living, and he immediately asked her to help him hire someone with unique abilities. Now he has four people with disabilities employed at his offices. Dr. Gearity has repeatedly said he wishes all his employees were as conscientious as the people placed by Morris because they arrive early and leave on time. Dr. Gearity has demonstrated an unprecedented commitment to supporting these individuals in the work place. One individual didn’t want a promotion because she thought she had done something wrong in her old job. Dr. Gearity patiently explained to her that she had done such a good job she was being given additional responsibility and more money. That approach helped the woman feel good about this new opportunity, and now she this thriving in her new position.

About APD

APD supports people with developmental disabilities to live, learn, and work in their communities.  The agency annually serves more than 50,000 Floridians with autism, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, intellectual disabilities, Down syndrome, Phelan-McDermid syndrome, and Prader-Willi syndrome. For more information about the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, visit or call toll-free 1‑866‑APD‑CARES (1‑866‑273‑2273).


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