From Special Olympics competition to the workplace

From 2015 to 2016, Special Olympics athlete David Egan served as a Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Fellow in Washington at the House Ways and Means Committee working with the Social Security Subcommittee and then with the National Down Syndrome Society. Grant Hindsley for ESPN

SEATTLE -- David Egan's smile should be a ticketed event. It strikes like the finale of a fireworks show, a burst of light and energy and warmth, reaching peak incandescence whenever he talks about his work.

Yes, the man loves his job that much, and now he's driven to show others it can happen for them, too.

Egan's title with Special Olympics is international global messenger, which may sound like he's an intergalactic emissary in a sci-fi film. But, in truth, he has made a lengthy and sometimes daunting journey, having gone from Special Olympics athlete to a noted spokesman and advocate for people with intellectual disabilities.

Egan has addressed Congress and has been a keynote speaker at events in which he fights to erase stereotypes and beat down barriers. His most effective tools are his articulate presentation, his lifelong experience of being underestimated -- and his disarming smile, of course. As he explained in one speech: "I am proud to have a job; I pay taxes, I vote and I matter. Having Down syndrome does not define me as a person."

The 40-year-old was perfectly positioned this week at the Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle, which has been a weeklong lesson in inclusion, and a convincing repudiation of reductive labels and preconceived limitations. Egan spoke on Thursday at the Journey of Employment job fair, the inaugural partnership event of Special Olympics and SourceAmerica.

"We're a national non-profit agency," said John Kelly, SourceAmerica vice president of government affairs and public policy. "Our mission is to help people with significant disabilities find employment."

Kelly said that SourceAmerica is a network of roughly 500 agencies around the country that has helped find work for 100,000 people in a vastly underemployed demographic. "Some 80 percent of people with disabilities are outside of the workforce," he said.

The job fair provided more than just networking for the thousands of athletes in attendance. Those participating progressed through stations where their skills were assessed, and where they received tutoring on their personal presentations in front of prospective employers. They moved on to tables set up by the various companies to chat with recruiters. And when they finished, they connected with agencies from their home regions with whom they could follow up on a regular basis.

The event drew representatives from a Fortune 500 who's-who including Microsoft, Amazon, Starbucks, Bank of America, Boeing and Walmart, among others.

Amie Dugan, vice president of organizational development for Special Olympics North America, said the involvement of such corporate heavyweights sends a strong signal. "It shows the respect of the diverse array of abilities our athletes bring to their communities and the workforce," Dugan said.

The arcane stereotype is that persons with disabilities are capable of only low-skilled work. But "the stereotype would be misrepresentative of the wide array of what our athletes can offer to the workforce," Dugan said.

SourceAmerica, Dugan added, "has been such a thoughtful and open partner, doing what they do best -- finding our athletes opportunities."

The smooth, early mesh of Special Olympics and SourceAmerica, Kelly said, has been the result of the shared goal of changing paradigms and expectations for those with intellectual disabilities.

"There's not a dramatic difference between what happens in sport and what happens in employment," Kelly said. "The qualities of teamwork, leadership skills, tenacity -- those are the same things employers are looking for."

Kelly's passion for his work is very personal; he's a father of two teens with autism spectrum disorder. They are too young to be wading into the work pool, yet, but Kelly envisions a time when his family will be faced with the challenges of finding productive and rewarding jobs as they mature.

Quantitative analysis of the impact of persons with intellectual disabilities in the workforce is difficult, but Kelly said he has many cases of anecdotal examples.

"You've got a group of people who have been, historically, left out of the workforce, so when they get a job and are successful, they tend to be some of the most motivated employees," Kelly said. "I don't mean to paint them as superheroes, but it's intrinsic, they're highly motivated and that translates very well for their employers."

Mark Feinour sees evidence of this pattern every day at Bank of America, where he's an executive in its Support Services program, which employs more than 300 people with cognitive or developmental disabilities across the corporation.

"You will not find a more dedicated and proud team of employees at Bank of America," Feinour said. "It's amazing how much they enjoy their work. The other employees realize their potential and it's contagious. I think they add energy to the departments they work in."

Egan's story is the blueprint for success. He started swimming in Special Olympics events when he was 8 years old. Through years of competition, the experience nurtured his self-confidence and his personal skills. He became the first person with an intellectual disability to be granted a Joseph P. Kennedy Public Policy Fellowship in 2015, through which he consulted with the House Ways and Means Committee.

The Special Olympics experience, he said, was at the taproot of it all. "You set goals and you work toward them as an athlete, and those things can transfer to the workplace," Egan said. "Having that determination and the drive to succeed demonstrates to employers why it's important to hire and work with people with disabilities."

Egan warned that assimilation isn't always smooth, and might take patience. "It takes an incredible amount of skills and ability to interact and express ourselves to people who don't know anything about us," he said. "That's what we need to continue to work on. This [job fair] is a great example of what we're trying to do. This is a worldwide movement, and these supporters are helping make it happen."