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 exist 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


  1. Attitudes do change slowly as seen in the recent interview in which a CEO stated that the work of someone with disabilities would only be worth $2/hour. (Actually he used less sensitive words.). I hope that more companies can realize how valuable a contribution individuals with special needs can make.

  2. That is nice to see. You never know what advice you will be given by strangers.

  3. Yay for CVS more companies should follow in CVS's footsteps differently-abled people need to contribute to the economy.

  4. Ellen,
    Don't have much hope for these type programs or Max will be wiping tables. Not that its a terrible fate but even at 11 he seems like he's got so much going on inside. He needs a life that lets all that goodness out to the world.
    And the job coach who asked if you are going to teach Max to you really want him in the hands of someone of that mentality? She works with special needs - she should know that it's not as simple as that. But that lack of awareness seems common among the job coach set (not that a few people who do the job aren't great).
    I speak from experience - after years of working for some fancy schmancy programs for youth with disabilities, I continually found the jobs segments of the programs to be the weakest link. The kids who ended up with meaningful jobs were the ones who had parents who took matters in their own hands as you are very able to do. You seem really insightful.
    Start now - what does he like? Animals, kids, sports? Get him as exposed as possible and start thinking of some of the lesser known jobs in that field. (Maybe he won't be a mechanic but maybe he can assist one or assist assist in a training problem)
    It'll be fine but it'll take effort and creativity.

    1. The job coach wasn't the one that asked her that, it was the girl who was working.

    2. ooops - sorry. I shouldn't have missed that. Not cool of me.
      But honestly, I've heard similar things out of the 'professionals.'
      Still, I'm embarrassed.

      And I didn't mean to be harsh but I've seen the abilities of so
      many kids ignored just because the packing was a little difference.
      These programs can have a role but I have zero faith that they
      are a big part in really developing abilities and jobs.
      Parents with the ability to do so have to take charge. (But no all
      parents can I understand)

  5. This story made me smile! CVS really IS a wonderful company, and I have experienced it firsthand; the Boston Regional Learning Center (where all Boston area employees go to train when they're hired) teamed up with the program I work for a few years ago. We were actually just featured in the Boston Globe -

    They've been so supportive, and so far a handful of our clients have moved on to paid jobs at area CVS stores. More and more area employers have caught on as well and have become incredibly supportive. There's a bright future for the disability employment world!

  6. Best Buddies has a fantastic Jobs program! They are actually just launching the program in New York this year, but I live in Boston and the program is really successful year. They work with adults 18+ to find competitive, integrated employment. The jobs that the participants with disabilities hold range from retail like Whole Foods or CVS to law firms and finance companies; very cool stuff. Max has a lot to look forward to in his professional life!

  7. My 17yo daughter with moderate cerebral palsy (she walks with a limp) is part of a high school program and works at CVS and Walgreens! She works two hours at each one day a week and LOVES her job. Although she doesn't get paid, she's getting work experience and learning life skills. And the boost to her self-esteem is astounding!!

    1. Sounds great but wish they would offer her a small stipend. Good for our kids to connect jobs with money!

  8. I think a few of the high schools in my area have that program - I know of several businesses in my town who employ people with ID after school. Love it! And it definitely gives me hope. :-)

  9. Lindsey's high school had a job's program and I do believe that is one of the reasons she is able to live independently. Woohoo to CVS. And to the State Farm agent in our town who hired Lindsey to file in their back office. It sure makes a difference in her life. (And I think there's too.)

  10. Both Publix and Chick fil A hire people with disabilities and I love to patronize them both. Particularly Publix because you get to spend more time with the baggers as they walk you to your car. I have my favorites :). Our local hospital has a program that hires and the employees get to pick what they want to do - one friend works as a greeter, another works in landscaping. And, the company that has the maintenance contract on our local military base also hires disababled adults. The non-profit performance hall where we have special needs dance and yoga has just started a day program and is working to add a vocational component as well. I think it's getting better and better out there.

  11. My niece K is 25, lives in South Carolina and has a job she loves (and has held for years!) at Walgreens -- and makes well above minimum wage. Several of her high school friends work at a nearby COSTCO (and have for years!). Both companies have stores all over the country and are proactive in hiring (and promoting!) individuals with disabilities.

    K's high school had a "co-op" transitions program that she (and many of her friends) attended until they turned 22 -- she had the opportunity to develop her skills and work at a few different companies (she was paid minimum wage, the school had a job coach providing support). Walgreens actually hired her full-time because she'd been such a great "co-op" student!

    1. Wow, I live in Columbia and this makes me excited and very hopeful. Thank you for this post.

  12. My aunt has Down Syndrome, and she LOVES her work as a housekeeper. She takes great pride in her job, telling me every day how many rooms she cleaned. She works in a work crew, which is great for her social life, but it is upsetting, as they only pay her about $0.10 an hour. It is outrageous. She works so hard and they pay her so little. Can you imagine??

  13. So thrilled to hear about options, though it is sobering to hear about pay issue problems. After I posted this, reader Marcy sent me a link to a CEO saying it was acceptable to pay $2 an hour to "mentally retarded" people—offensive on SO many levels. See the video here, start at minute 4:20

    1. Walgreens, Costco and the companies that hire consultants from Specialisterne (which employs individuals with ASDs for tech work) all pay their employees with disabilities AT LEAST minimum wage -- and, actually, way more than minimum (something like $60/hr) for the latter. Turns out their employees are significantly better at repetitive product testing/software debugging than a NT employee:

  14. Thank you, Ellen, AGAIN for posting a very relevant and concerning issue for parents and grandparents of children with special needs. Our family is very aware of the issues our darling girl will continue to face as she gets older (she is now only 3). This does give us hope! I need to transfer more of my consumer spending to companies like CVS, Chick Fil A, Costco - and wish I had a Publix to go to here in Texas!!

  15. Same even though my girls are not even 1 yet. Since there is no Publix in my town, I shop at CVS. I am aware of issues Amelia may encounter when she is a adult though I'm hopeful she wont have them. Hopefully the opportunities will improve by the time she is a adult.

    But I'll cross that bridge when I get to it as I do enough worrying about the future as it is...

  16. Unfortunately my daughter who has learning disabilities and Aspergers (but has a bachelors degree) cannot find a job. It is very sad that someone who can work cannot get work.

  17. This is a bit late, but hopefully you see it!
    The ARC (there is one based out of Freehold & one in Red Bank NJ) has a job placement & job coach program. They operate across the US.
    I worked as a job coach for a short while. Wawa was one of the employeers we worked with quite a bit- the managers were always very nice & professional, and welcomed their new employees. The people I worked with worked in various roles within the WaWas; stocking, keeping the drink area clean, registers, etc.
    The big warehouse stores (Sams Club, Costco) were also good.

  18. My high school had a work experience program, and I was in it during my senior year. I, myself, have learning difficulties. I am almost 30 and have a 2.5 year old he is also disabled, and i feel like such a failure that i can't provide for us. I don't drive, i get anxiety. So for me to get up and go is rough. I have been like a nomad for the passed 9 years, i have to rely on government help. I absolutely hate it because people seem too quickly to judge of being too lazy to get a job. But i agree, more business should hire more people with (any) disability! I once tried to apply at Hobby Lobby and they make you fill out a math paper. I have a math disability. I told them and they said without getting the answers right i was not able to work even to clean restrooms


Thanks for sharing!

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