Jason Moreau, the first Downtown Improvement District (DID) “ambassador” who operates from a wheelchair, had to work hard to land his job.

Moreau, 41, whose disposition is as sunny as the day I encountered him on the east end of downtown Minneapolis, is one of the 40-plus crew of ambassadors who help with directions, pick up trash, tend to the greenery, befriend those who need a hand and, occasionally, call the cops when they spot a problem.

“It’s like being paid to be a good Samaritan,” said Moreau, who signed on in 2016 and makes $15 an hour. “I was attracted to helping people.”

Moreau, who was injured in an accident several years ago that caused brain trauma, is the embodiment of people with disabilities who want to work but face an unemployment rate of three times that of the general population.

We need Jason Moreau and more in this worker-hungry economy where there is virtually zero unemployment in the Twin Cities.

“It was great to get back into the groove of working,” said Moreau, clad in a bright blue winter jacket and bright yellow cap.

Moreau, 41, could be sitting in his apartment collecting the Social Security disability payments to which he is entitled. However, after a few years of recovery and physical and mental therapy that brought him to the point where he could live independently, Moreau hungered to help support himself. It took almost a year and countless applications and interviews for the former salesman and golf instructor to land a job.

“It’s a positive thing” that Moreau operates from a wheelchair, said Anna Schmoll, who oversees the ambassadors. “He’s been a great addition to our team over the last couple of years. He shows up every day with a positive attitude and good outlook.”

“He has no problem carrying a ‘grabber,’ or a broom and a dustpan,” she said. “All of our ambassadors are expected to greet and direct people and help as needed. When I asked Jason if he would be able to pick up trash, he said, ‘Absolutely.’ He has the attitude and tools.”

DID is financed by a self-imposed tax on property owners in the downtown area.

A 2017 study by the University of St. Thomas business school and Minnesota Diversified Industries (MDI), the nonprofit manufacturer that employs able-bodied and disabled workers, revealed that people with disabilities often face “implicit bias” when it comes to trying to enter the workforce.

“Companies seem to have a tough time figuring out how to work with people with disabilities,” MDI CEO Peter McDermott said last year. “We really wanted this to be an effort to educate employers that people with disabilities can work. Low expectations is the curse of people with disabilities.”

In Minnesota, disabled adults are three times more likely to be unemployed than the general population, according to the St. Thomas-MDI study, based on 2016 statistics. Many would like to work at least part time. Many of the jobs are low-paying.

Barriers include transportation, communication skills and a lack of awareness of employment resources. Sometimes nonprofit sponsors can help disabled employees get to the job. And employers sometimes need some coaching. It’s available.

One research team member, a St. Thomas student, said last year that none of the students had much experience with people with disabilities.

A key finding: Simply knowing someone with a disability can make a difference. And empathetic employers were more likely to hire and advance disabled workers.

Generally, employers often lump together folks with disabilities, the study found. Yet there’s a wide range of talent and potential.

Not everybody, able-bodied or otherwise, fits every job. Anecdotally, disabled folks tend to be very grateful, conscientious and loyal.

Being in a wheelchair or having a mental disability shouldn’t disqualify someone from working in IT, answering customer calls, making a sale, waxing a floor or assembling products. We know these folks. And our economy is incomplete until it accommodates all who want to work at a decent wage.

Moreau, who dresses warmly these days and is always welcome for a breather inside downtown businesses and public buildings, most fondly remembers the day he helped a guy in a wheelchair.

Early one frigid morning, Moreau used his motor-powered wheelchair to push a citizen in a no-motor chair up an icy incline to the doorway of St. Olaf Catholic Church.

Moreau also enjoys checking on homeless people, directing lost citizens in search of dentist offices and parking ramps, greeting pedestrians of all stripes, and even recycling or disposing of sidewalk litter.

“We want to make downtown a welcoming environment,” Moreau said. “I get a negative comment once in a while, such as ‘Why are you working?’ ”

“For the most part, the public is incredibly kind.”

Godspeed, Jason Moreau. Thank you for your work.


Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.