It’s a seemingly simple concept – Expanding job opportunities for people with disabilities means creating taxpayers who will lessen the need for public assistance. And, at the same time, employers get capable workers who take pride in their work.
Becky Bisbee, a former business editor at The Seattle Times, wrote about the experience of her 22-year-old daughter finding a job for the paper. It’s an excellent column about possibilities and shifting attitudes, first published at the end of March.
We are more alike than we are different. That’s how I have approached having a daughter with severe intellectual disabilities for the last 22 years.
Like all mothers, I want my daughter to be happy and healthy, to be safe, to have friends, to live her best life and be a productive member of society. I want to focus on the milestones she reaches. She attended public schools, graduating with her peers from Interlake High School in Bellevue. She learned to ride a tricycle. She goes to camp during the summer. Like many girls, she plays with dolls, is a social butterfly and a bit of a flirt.
And like many young adults six months out of school, she has landed her first paid job. A year ago, I would have called that a miracle.
But there she is wearing a blue apron and pushing a cart, delivering office supplies and snacks to co-workers at Davis Wright Tremaine law firm in downtown Bellevue two mornings a week. She wears a badge. She clocks in and out. She gets paid.
Washington state has been a leader in promoting equal opportunities for people with disabilities. In 2004, the state adopted Title 71A, promising “all individuals, regardless of the challenge of their disability, will be afforded an opportunity to pursue competitive employment.”
By 2009, 7,277 people with disabilities were working in the community. In 2012, the state Legislature passed a bill to support adult employment, recognizing the importance of people with disabilities working in meaningful jobs in typical workplaces.
By 2013, more than a third of Washingtonians with any disability held a job, or 174,595 employees, according to statedata.info. The percentage drops to 24 percent for those with intellectual disabilities.
Besides bagging your groceries and wrangling shopping carts at Safeway, people with disabilities are making gains everywhere. There is 17-year-old Sam, who has autism and makes coffee drinks at a Starbucks in Toronto. After becoming a social media sensation, he appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres TV talk show with his mentor and store manager Chris Ali.
Microsoft, which has been hiring people of all abilities for 15 years, launched a hiring program in Redmond for people with autism in April 2015. It hired 11 people as software engineers and data analysts during the first two rounds and is expanding the program to the United Kingdom. It hopes to hire at least 20 people with autism between the two locations.
What does the state get for this investment?
Taxpaying citizens who may support themselves, lessening the need for public assistance. Others will spend their hard-earned paychecks going to the movies or visiting friends at coffee shops or updating their phones.
What do these companies get?
Highly capable employees who take pride in their work. See Sam, the barista.
For me, I know my daughter is happy to be at Davis Wright Tremaine when she waves goodbye as soon as she latches on to her job coach provided by the AtWork agency. The pride spills over. Mark Berry, Bellevue partner in charge at the law firm (Paige’s boss) recognizes it: “On every level, our experience has been a highly positive one for both the office and those who work here.”
What does society get?
A more inclusive community that expands the horizons of the people with disabilities as well as their co-workers. New relationships can improve the lives of all participants.
The woman Paige replaced went on to get a full-time job at Microsoft.
A full-time job is almost too much for me to hope for. But that expectation is key, says Gina Solberg, employment-services director at Provail, a supportive employment agency based in Seattle since the 1980s.
“Attitudes have shifted from protect above everything else to better to try and fail then have never had the opportunity,” Solberg says.
And there I am. Just like every mother, I want Paige to have opportunities.