ELIZABETH, NJ - For Stephen Soares, two things have remained constant throughout his 30 years: a love of cars, and a dream to drive a truck. 

“All my life, I wanted to be a truck driver,” he said. “I wanted to do something that was going to make a good living and earn enough money to make things better in my life.”

Soares is a person with a developmental disability, part of a population that faces exceedingly disproportionate rates of poverty, food insecurity and employment discrimination. In 2017, the unemployment rate for Americans with disabilities was 9.2 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than twice that of Americans without a disability. Many are forced to live on meager disability funding due to a lack of living-wage opportunity and stigma. 

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So, when Soares set out to build a career as a trucker, he and his support staff at Community Access Unlimited (CAU), a Union County-based human services agency, knew the obstacles and frustrations ahead of them were many. 

To obtain a commercial driver’s license in NJ, applicants must receive a passing grade of 80 percent. Over the course of about two years, Stephen took and missed the mark on his exams more than a dozen times, struggling through periods of self-doubt and disappointment. 

But this past September, the countless hours of studying, the setbacks and an undying determination to realize a childhood dream finally paid off. 

“I went to driving school, studied, practiced and then I would take the test. I would get close, but not close enough,” Soares said. “One day I said, ‘Let me just try this again and see.’ I passed it.”

What made the difference this time around, according to Soares and his job coach at CAU, Erik Velasquez, was setting a goal: practice, work, study, practice some more and get that CDL by October. Soares said that having Velasquez by his side made all the difference. 

"He's come such a long way," Velasquez said. “I tell him every day, ‘Keep going forward, Don't stop. Reach your goal.' I felt great for him and myself because we work as a team. We accomplished what we came to do.”

Fredia McKinnie, the assistant executive director of CAU’s employment services, watched Soares’ steady journey toward his destination. Not only is he now a holder of a commercial drivers license, she said, but a better, more confident person for what he went through to obtain it. 

"This has been a long process for him, something he really wanted to do. Just watching him progress and mature -- he's not the same Stephen that started this process two years ago. That growth is what has really gotten him to this space,” McKinnie added. 

What’s next for Soares, who currently works part-time as a diesel mechanic and delivery person? Getting his dream job, and continuing to show the world that ability does not define possibility. 

“[People with disabilities] could make every dream come true that we put our minds to,” he said.  

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. To find out how your business can benefit from hiring individuals with disabilities, contact Fredia McKinnie at fmckinnie@caunj.org

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