Thursday, January 30, 2014
Jobs for people with disabilities, and a flash of hope
As I was standing on line in CVS the other day, an elderly woman walk in with two teens who had special needs.
The woman said, "We should go put our jackets in the back room."
Hmmm. They worked at the store? I had to know.
"Do they have jobs here?" I asked.
"Yes," she said, but then she got distracted because the girl had started walking away down an aisle.
The boy stood nearby and waited. "We've got to know what to do!" he said, to nobody in particular. I smiled at him.
The lady and girl returned. I persisted.
"Are they here as part of a program?" I asked.
Yes, she said, through a local high school.
"I ask because I have a child with special needs," I said.
"How old is he? Where does he go to school?" she asked.
I told her. I explained that Max will age out of his school at 14, and we'll need to find a high school for him.
"Make sure they have a jobs program," she advised.
The girl looked at me. "It's my birthday!" she said.
"Happy birthday!" I said. "You work here, right?"
"Yes!" she said, proudly.
"What exactly do you do?" I asked the lady.
"I'm a job coach," she said. "I'm here to help them understand how to work. You should make sure your son's high school has one of those, too!"
I felt a rush of excitement. I loved hearing that a high school had a job program like this, ditto for CVS—and that coaches existed to help young adults along.
By then, it was my turn at the register and when I flipped open my wallet to pay, the girl spotted a photo of Max in the plastic sleeve.
"Oh, he's so cute!" she said.
"I have to agree, he's cute!" I answered. "He has cerebral palsy."
"What does that mean?" she asked.
"It means sometimes it's hard for him to use his hands and speak," I said.
"Are you going to teach him how to speak?" the girl asked.
"I try!" I said. "I hope someday he speaks as well as you do."
With that, the lady and the girl walked away. "Be careful what you wish for!" the lady said, laughing, and I got the impression that the girl was a big talker.
I walked back to the car, smiling. Once, I'd had a moment in Whole Foods when I watched a woman with Down syndrome clean tables. Even though she'd seemed content, I'd wondered sadly if that was what the future held for Max; I couldn't help but project my own idea of what a "good" job was onto him. But it's been awhile, and I am at a place where it genuinely makes me happy to hear about stores and companies that have work programs like this for people with disabilities. Having choices is a good thing.
Weeks ago, I read an article about a Tim Horton's franchise owner in Canada who has a longtime history of hiring people with disabilities, and who's been urging other businesses to do the same. It's the only story of its kind I've seen in long time. I am not talking about small businesses or non-profits that center around employing people with disability, like The Harvest Cafe we once visited in Staten Island. I mean major businesses.
These days, with so much new technology out there enabling people with disabilities, you'd think there would be more work opps for them. But mindsets are far slower to make progress than machines are. Per the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), in December labor force participation was 18.7% for people with disabilities, 68.3% for those without. The unemployment rate was 11.9 percent for people with disabilities, 6.3 percent for those without.
ODEP has an ongoing What Can You Do? campaign, geared toward inspiring people with disabilities to find work and encouraging employers to hire them. There's also a "What Will You Do?" section for youths. It states, "Understand your right to be judged on your ability, not disability." A-men.
Max is 11, so it's not like I have to buy him an interview suit anytime soon. (Although if Disney is ever looking for a Lightning McQueen merchandise specialist, Max is their man-kid). There's plenty of time to look into resources, plenty of time for more options to crop up—and for attitudes to adjust. I refuse to let myself worry now about how Max will make his way in the job world, because it's futile.
But I so love hearing about possibilities.
Image source: Sean Moline Photography