CLARKSVILLE — For Clarksville teacher Sarah Schwartz, her co-workers at The Excel Center are her family.

So when she faces issues due to her disability, they are always there to support her, she said.

"That’s one thing I was afraid of — are they going to have those accommodations for someone like me?" she said. "…They’re always here to help me with everything and anything that I need."

Schwartz teaches math at the Clarksville school, which is a tuition-free high school for adults and older youth operated by Goodwill Education Initiatives, Inc. She has limb girdle muscular dystrophy, a genetic condition causing progressive weakness and loss of muscle mass.

Goodwill employs more than 4,100 Indiana residents, and 32% have a disability, according to Jennifer Rendant, director of education marketing and communications for Goodwill of Central and Southern Indiana. Statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that people with disabilities are twice as likely to be unemployed as those without disabilities.

Schwartz is among the Goodwill employees recognized by the organization for National Disability Employment Awareness Month. She said she appreciates Goodwill's focus on supporting students, staff and community members with disabilities, and it has made her more comfortable talking about her own disability with students and fellow staff.

"I just love the support that they have," she said. "And it's not just here [at The Excel Center] — it's at the central office. If we have big events or something, they are so accommodating. They always make sure, 'Sarah, do you have what you need? Will this work, will this not work' — stuff like that."

Although Schwartz wasn't diagnosed until last June, she has experienced symptoms of the muscular dystrophy since age 16 or 17. The symptoms slowly started getting worse, and it became progressively more difficult to go up or down stairs or other steep surfaces without assistance.

She can currently walk on flat surfaces without assistance, but if she falls, it is challenging to get back up. She also has difficulty lifting herself out of certain chairs and carrying heavy objects.

"In my head, I'm constantly saying, don’t fall, watch out for this," she said. "And so I think when I get really tired, I stop doing that. I trip over my own feet and my ankle gives out."

Schwartz has a bachelor's degree in education, but after graduating in 2014, it was difficult to find full-time work in the field. She was working part-time at the Goodwill Store in Clarksville when she learned about The Excel Center in Clarksville, and she was one of the first teachers hired at the new school, which opened in 2017.

Her co-workers all know about her muscular dystrophy, and she wants both students and staff to be aware of what to do if she falls — she has fallen three or four times at work, but not in her classroom. It has become easier to communicate about her condition in the workplace since she was diagnosed, and she informs her students on the first day of school.

Claire Coppage, lead instructor at The Excel Center, has worked with Schwartz since the school opened in 2017. "Sarah's needs are our needs," she said, and they make sure she has what she needs to safely get around. For example, when the staff went on a hayride at Huber's Orchard & Winery, they brought a ramp and made sure she could go along.

"So we opened the school together, and Sarah was very forthcoming with the difficulties that she has, and of course, we embraced that with open arms, and [we were there] anytime she needed help," Coppage said. "But she’s always like, ‘it ain’t no thing.’” She downplays it, but we’re always looking out for her safety."

Schwartz said she is thankful to have a workplace where people support and care about her.

"This experience has been amazing," Schwartz said. "I love getting out of bed and coming to work. I don’t even classify it as work — it’s like, this is my life. I feel like a lot of people can’t say that— I can wake up and I come here and I enjoy what I’m doing."

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