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April 3, 2023 Focus: DEI

In DEI conversation, employers often overlook people with disabilities

PHOTO | CONTRIBUTED Mintz+Hoke CEO Ron Perine with employee Cate Alix.

Cate Alix checks off the job responsibilities she has as an office assistant at Avon-based advertising agency Mintz+Hoke.

Distributing mail, restocking supplies, scanning, making copies, inventory, keeping conference rooms clean and tidy, and — best of all — shredding.

“Shredding is my jam,” she laughs.

For her boss, CEO Ron Perine, having Alix in the office is about more than just her organizing skills.

“Cate’s personality has just made such an impact on everybody here,” he said. “And I think her eagerness to do anything and to learn more sets a really good example for a lot of people.”

Alix, 26, has Down syndrome. She is part of one of the most marginalized of all cohorts in employment — adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, or IDD. Data from national surveys suggest that only around 18% of working-age adults supported by state IDD agencies are employed in a paid job in the community.

Overall, in 2022, 21.3% of people with disabilities were employed in the U.S., up from 19.1% in 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. By comparison, 65.4% of people without a disability were employed last year.

“We’ve done a pretty good job with inclusive education,” said Cate’s mother Noelle Alix, “but then when those students transition either out of high school or a post-high school program, there’s nothing. They go from being part of a classroom and being included, to essentially nothing waiting for them and an unemployment rate that’s pretty staggering.”

That’s one of the reasons that Noelle Alix is a co-founder of another inclusive workplace in Avon, the cafe Beanz & Co., which integrates employees with IDD alongside typical peers.

Her partner in the business, Kim Morrison, who also has a daughter with Down syndrome, said the venture, which opened in 2018, was born of frustration with employers who weren’t willing to take a chance.

“They don’t get it. They think it’s too hard. They think it’s going to be too expensive,” Morrison said. “Or, they just don’t want to do it.”

While many people with IDD may not be able to handle a typical 40-hour-a-week position, Morrison said there’s plenty of opportunity to get creative in making a role.

“What if we just carved off a piece of that job, and you gave someone a job for say, 15 to 20 hours a week?” she said. “That is an entire life for someone who isn’t otherwise afforded the ability to be out in the community working, making a paycheck, spending a paycheck, not being dependent on government assistance for a hundred percent.”

Sales pitch

For Perine, who has been Cate Alix’s boss since 2019, the rewards of making this work were unexpected.

“For our folks, being in a high-paced (profession) can be kind of stressful sometimes,” he said. “Cate interacted with everybody and everybody just loved seeing her. People just stopped, and whatever they were anxious about kind of just melted away. The relationship that she’s created with people here is incredible.”

It’s a sales pitch that Dan Bracken makes to employers every day.

“We’re not coming to them saying, could you please give us some charity and help out this person?” said Bracken, the career development services manager for Easterseals Capital Region & Eastern Connecticut. “We’re going to them and we’re saying, ‘Hey, I’d like to be an asset to you because I know hiring is difficult. Let me know what job openings you have because I work with a pool of highly motivated people that I can help connect you to and fill your staffing needs.’”

Bracken works with people with all kinds of limitations, physical disabilities and psychiatric conditions in addition to intellectual disabilities. Although the “d” word is not a term he likes.

“I don’t like to think of it as a disability,” he said. “I like to think everyone has their own way of being in the world. A lot of times people with quote-unquote ‘disabilities’ have been discriminated against. And if you choose to go forward hiring somebody like that, they’re oftentimes going to be the hardest working person on your team.”

Part of Bracken’s role is to help employers and prospective workers navigate the complex landscape of programs that exist to facilitate competitive hiring of non-typical employees.

It’s an effort to mainstream employment for people with disabilities, moving away from an older model of segregated workshops and sub-minimum wage employment.

When Bracken places a new employee, he said it’s always for at least minimum wage. But Connecticut, in line with current federal law, still allows employers to get a waiver to pay workers with disabilities a sub-minimum wage.

A bill in the current legislative session aims to eliminate this provision, making the state part of a growing movement around the country. When a similar measure was raised in 2019 it died in committee, but not before the Department of Developmental Services noted the complexity of the issue in its testimony.

Many services aimed at integrating employees with disabilities in competitive employment are funded through Connecticut’s Bureau of Rehabilitation Services, and provided through nonprofit agencies including Easterseals, The Arc and Project SEARCH.

These can include vocational training and also funding for no-risk trial work periods with employers.

“It gives them a chance to kind of get a feel for the job,” Bracken said. “It also gives us a chance to really focus on what their strengths are, as well as what potential barriers to competitive employment might exist, and then it gives us a chance to come up with mitigation strategies to overcome those potential barriers.”

Those strategies can include an on-the-job coach provided at no cost to the employer by his agency. In fact, Bracken himself provides coaching services to several of his clients, either on-site at their job or on the phone.

“There’s a segment of the population that their way of being might not allow them to fully enter into a pre-existing job,” he said. “So, as a society, what do we do? Do we say, ‘well, these people can’t work’?”

Lack of awareness

That’s where customized employment comes in. One of Bracken’s recent clients, who is on the autism spectrum, was seeking work as a veterinary technician.

Bracken approached and partnered with Connecticut Veterinary Center in West Hartford where his client got a 40-hour job preview in an existing open position.

“It was clear that it wasn’t going to work out,” said Bracken. “She loves the animals so much, she gets too excited when they’re there. A vet tech is supposed to bring the person in and then when the vet comes in the room, fade into the background. She kept wanting to engage the pets. She didn’t want to let them leave.”

So, he switched tack to see if the Center would agree to create a customized position.

“A lot of people that are on the spectrum are really good at laser-focusing on computer tasks. So I pitched to them, what if we created a new vet administrative assistant position and she could take some of these administrative burdens off your other people like scheduling, billing, scanning?”

The Center agreed, and Bracken’s client was able to stay with her vision of employment in a vet’s office.

Bracken said he doesn’t often encounter outright discriminatory attitudes, but there is a deep lack of awareness among employers of the barriers to employment experienced by a big segment of the population.

For instance, even the ubiquitous online application isn’t geared to be accessible to many people with disabilities.

DEI, said Bracken, “has to be equality of opportunity. We need to make sure that these initiatives are focused on creating an atmosphere and systems that propagate equality of opportunity.”

One of Bracken’s recent success stories, Jenelle Woods, agrees. In December, the 29-year-old Manchester resident scored her first job working as a Walmart greeter.

“I needed to do what I can for me. I just needed to get out of the house, and that was my biggest thing,” Woods said. “It’s helping me to be independent and just do what I can.”

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