This article on our client, Barber Institute, was originally posted on USA Today. You can find the article here: https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2019/09/02/labor-day-hire-employees-intellectual-disabilities-column/2156118001/
Creating neurodiversity in the workplace is a smart move for any employer. Individuals with intellectual disabilities have a lot to offer.
Labor Day offers us the chance to reflect on progress made in the workplace. Over the past several years, I’ve had the privilege of seeing that progress increasingly enrich the lives of those intellectual disabilities. Just recently, two Philadelphia men gained the satisfaction and self-worth that comes with that first-job paycheck thanks to two local employers.
Just shy of his 50th birthday, James Fonash washes windows and sweeps carpets at Courtyard Marriott City Avenue. Meanwhile, Timothy Champion, 30, works three days a week at a Wawa convenience store in East Falls, a Philadelphia neighborhood.
Timothy’s mother, Charisse, summed it up well, saying, “The job at Wawa has given Tim a sense of dignity. He loves to do a good job, and won’t give up until it’s done right.”
Filling a specific need for employers
As unemployment hovers around historic lows and employers struggle to fill entry-level positions, James and Timothy offer prime examples of what’s possible when employers expand their vision to include those with intellectual disabilities in the workplace.
The need for workers coincides with more individuals with intellectual disabilities seeking entry in the workplace. Consider that in the late 1980s, the frequency of children diagnosed with autism was 1 in 1,000. Today, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it’s 1 in 59.
Many of those diagnosed in the 80s and 90s are now in search of that pivotal first job. And thankfully, we’re seeing a growing willingness among employers to give these individuals a chance to prove their value on the job.
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The Philadelphia area isn’t alone in finding that these adults can make for loyal employees. Research by the Special Olympics found that, nationwide, 81% of adults with intellectual disabilities who have jobs in a sheltered setting (where they receive training to develop their skills) have been with their current employer for three years or more.
The unemployment rate for those with intellectual disabilities remains far higher than the broader workforce. Beyond that, workers with a disability are more likely to be employed part time, 31% to 17%, when compared to non-disabled peers.
In the face of these trends, what more can we do to foster employment and acceptance?
To start with, we need to continue to invest in programs that help students with autism and intellectual disabilities explore employment during high school, as well as other services that help adults build marketable skills. These include “soft skills,” such as how to dress for the job and ways to communicate effectively with supervisors, co-workers and customers.
My organization, the Barber National Institute, offers a supported employment programthat helps adults locate and interview for jobs and provides them with coaches who can teach the responsibilities of the new position. This service is free of charge for employers, who can be assured that the adults they hire will be trained to do the job right. A growing number of other nonprofits offer similar programs in other cities.
Beyond that, awareness is key. Every time an individual with disabilities succeeds at a job, they are not just earning a paycheck. They are helping to demonstrate to co-workers and customers that they can make a meaningful contribution — and that there’s ample room in today’s workforce for individuals with a diverse range of experience, skills and aptitudes.
Positivity is an immeasurable asset
These workers also often deliver an unexpected benefit: improved morale. Time and again, we’ve been told that one of the individuals placed through the Barber National Institute brought an infectious enthusiasm and ongoing inspiration to their co-workers and customers. That’s the case at Courtyard Marriott City Avenue where five individuals from the Barber National Institute now work.
“We’re helping them and they’re helping us,” says Laura Williams, that Courtyard Marriott’s head of HR. “It’s a challenge to find team members who are excited and extremely proud to come to work every day. It’s really an inspiration to see the pride they take in their work.”
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Proof positive of this principle is James, the 49-year-old who has now been hired for his first job. James works at the Courtyard Marriott cleaning windows and vacuuming the carpets on several floors of the hotel each week.
“All I know is he can’t wait to get up in the morning, put his uniform on and go to work,” says his father, James Fonash, Sr. “It is a new horizon for us. We never thought we would see this day.”
Wawa, Courtyard Marriott and several other employers nationwide should be commended for setting a positive example by hiring those with intellectual disabilities.
We encourage other employers to do the same. You’ll be opening new horizons that will not only benefit the individuals you hire, but also your business, your employees, your customers and your community.
Gale Williams is supervisor of employment services at the Barber National Institute.
In full transparency, Pugliese Associate represents Barber National Institute.