Record gains in employment for people with disabilities

More people with disabilities are getting jobs in the community, and the statistics are finally starting to reflect this.

For decades, people with disabilities have participated in the workforce less than the general population. Those numbers are still low (30 percent on average compared to 76 percent for the general population), but record improvements happened during 2016, according to a recent report released earlier this month.

Graphic from National Trends in Disability Employment monthly update
Credit: National Trends in Disability Employment monthly update

It’s been the longest run of employment gains for Americans with disabilities since the Great Recession. The good news comes just after the National Task Force unveiled a major report that outlines best practices and policy recommendations to help states remove employment barriers for people with disabilities.

“When we think about workforce development just generally, it may not be specifically focused on people living with disabilities. But to me, it’s all about realizing potential,” said Council of State Governments (CSG) Executive Director/CEO David Adkins. “When anyone is excluded, potential is left unrealized.”

About 1 in 5 Americans live with a disability and there are 22 million working-age Americans with disabilities. But many adults and youth with disabilities are unemployed or underemployed despite an ability, desire and willingness to work in the community and contribute to the economy.

The task force convened four subcommittees focused on policy areas that impact the employability of people with disabilities: Career Readiness and Employability; Entrepreneurship, Tax Incentives and Procurement; Transportation, Technology and Other Employment Supports; and Hiring, Retention and Re-entry.

Read more in this Huffington Post article.


Minnesota launches disability hiring initiative

Minnesota recently unveiled Connect 700, a program that will give people with disabilities up to 700 hours of on-the-job work experience in state agencies to demonstrate their abilities. A second supported work program will offer people with disabilities up to 50 full-time positions in state agencies.

 “We need to lead by example,” Gov. Mark Dayton said. “We can’t expect businesses and nonprofits to be spearheading new efforts if we aren’t leading the way.”

The move is part of a longer-term effort by the state to reverse what had been a sharp decline in the state’s employment of people with disabilities. Before Dayton took office, a number of state agencies had stopped tracking the hiring and recruiting of people with disabilities, officials said. Agencies had affirmative action plans, but they lacked specific disability employment goals. As a result, the rate of workers with disabilities in state government had plunged from 10 percent in 1999 to less than 4 percent in 2013.

In August 2014, Dayton directed state agencies to increase the share of disabled workers to at least 7 percent by August 2018. Since then, the state has designed a model for recruiting and hiring people with disabilities, and has mandated quarterly reporting on hiring targets. Currently, the overall percentage of state employees with disabilities is 6.2 percent, but a number of state agencies are still below 4 percent.

Read more from the Minnesota Star Tribune.

Celebrating National Disability Employment Awareness Month

Reflecting the important role disability plays in workforce diversity, this year’s National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) theme is “#InclusionWorks.”

Observed each October, NDEAM celebrates the contributions of workers with disabilities and educates about the value of a diverse workforce inclusive of their skills and talents. Learn more on the official NDEAM website.

Our Employment Spotlight blog will be posting more local success stories and resources to celebrate this month.

McDonald’s worker retires after 32 years


What happens when you take a chance, even if it makes you nervous? Freia David’s mom and boss did just that, and the woman who has Down syndrome is retiring from her job after 32 years. Story originally published in the Boston Globe.

When Freia David began working at McDonald’s through an innovative program to place adults with cognitive disabilities in community jobs, her mother worried. What if the work was too hard? What if she didn’t fit in?

While two of her peers did not finish the six-month training, the young woman with Down syndrome quickly warmed to the fast-food work, wiping down counters, filling ketchup dispensers, and greeting customers with a smile. Then she got a chance at the french fry station, and Freia David — whose given name sounds like “fryer” spoken with a strong Boston accent — responded as if she were born to it.

That was 1984.

In her 32 years at McDonald’s, Freia David had served close to 1 million pounds of its famed french fries.
In her 32 years at McDonald’s, Freia David had served close to 1 million pounds of its famed french fries. Photo by David L. Ryan/Boston Globe

For the next 32 years, five days a week, she has spent the lunch rush frying, salting, and boxing fries at the Needham McDonald’s, always arriving an hour early, sometimes dancing in place before the stainless steel Frymaster. On Saturdays, she returns with her mother to eat lunch and see friends, day-off visits filled with hugs and high-fives.

David, 52, was closing in on 1 million pounds of fries served when her mother, Anneliese, an elegant and energetic 90, noticed that her daughter was showing signs of forgetfulness. Early onset dementia is common among people with Down syndrome, and Anneliese David worried for her safety around fryer oil and heat lamps.

She urged her daughter to retire. Am I being fired? David asked her mother. No, she reassured her. But it was time to go.

The job had meant everything to David, her mother said. It had been “her life.” But when David announced she was leaving, how much she meant to the restaurant instantly became clear. Management hung a banner celebrating her 32 years and invited the community to a retirement party.

The Davids expected a few old friends to show up Monday. Instead, more than 100 people packed the McDonald’s — loyal customers, former neighbors, adults with disabilities and their relatives, and many others — all there to wish David well.

They sent her off in style — two cakes, a silver necklace adorned with a fry-carton pendant, a cut-crystal model of the restaurant, a collection of photo collages, and a stack of heart-felt cards, along with a set of her favorite Disney stuffed animals and a proclamation from the state House of Representatives. For three hours, they enjoyed complimentary fries and bites of cake in between selfies.

Anneliese David initially was concerned about the responsibilities her daughter was undertaking. Photo by David L. Ryan/Boston Globe

“I’m speechless,” said Anneliese David, soaking up the scene beneath a giant set of Minnie Mouse ears that had been formed from hundreds of pink and black balloons. “I expected a party, but not a party like this.”

Anneliese, who was born in Germany and settled in Needham with her husband, Lothar, worked at this McDonald’s herself in the early 1960s, between the time her first child, Sabine, started kindergarten and Freia’s birth two years later.

At Christmas 1963, Anneliese had cried and prayed over her infant daughter’s diagnosis, worried she “never would have a regular life” in an era when many adults with developmental disabilities wound up in institutions.

But as the years passed, she watched her daughter become an energetic girl who loved pop music and Disney movies, especially live-action ones such as “The Parent Trap” and “Pollyanna.” And she watched times change with her, bending toward inclusion.

In her early 20s, David was working in a sheltered workshop for adults with disabilities run by the Charles River Center, when the Needham nonprofit persuaded McDonald’s and another company to hire a few workers on a trial basis. A counselor recommended David and urged her mother to let her try.

“He said, ‘Anneliese, let her go. Then you can see,’ ” she recalled. “And he was right. And she loved it.”

In the decades since, Charles River has placed hundreds of adults with disabilities in jobs across the region, and all the while David has worked the fryer in Needham. She never needed to be roused from bed, wanting to get to work early to relax and chat with customers before starting her three-hour shift.

Each shift began with a hug for the manager, Rony Sandoval, and ended with the same question — had she done a good or bad job? Sandoval’s answer was always the same, a silent high five and wide smile.

On Monday, he and other coworkers presented David, who sat with her friends from the Charles River group home where she has lived during the week since her late 30s, with gifts and toasts.

“Freia, thank you so much for being part of our family,” said Bob Broughton, operations director for the franchise group that includes the Needham McDonald’s. “We love you, we appreciate you, we respect you, and we’re all better people for having you in our lives.”

As a parting gift, he promised David and her mother free meals for the rest of their lives.

Then, as cameras clicked, David took one last turn at the fry station. Sandoval called out orders — “Can I have a small fries, please? . . . Medium fries, please?” — and David maneuvered the fryer basket, salt shaker, and fry-to-carton sifter with a well-honed rhythm. When she looked to Sandoval, he smiled and gave her a high five.

As the party ended, he sought her out again for a hug.

“Bye, sweetie,” he said, knowing she would be back for lunch soon. “See you Saturday.”

Case study: From workshops to workforce in Tennessee

What happens when you close sheltered workshops and move people with developmental disabilities into the community workforce? The prospect of this monumental task can seem daunting, even impossible, for many organizations.

When SRVS (pronounced “serves”) took an opportunity to transition people to integrated employment in Shelby County, Tennessee, some were skeptical and others pushed back against the proposal. So they started implementing strategies to focus on “soft skills” such as resume writing and navigating a professional environment.

“Our workshop was our face in the community,” said Tyler Hampton, SRVS’ Executive Director. “Everybody loved us. People were happy. When you walked through people would hug you.”

Eric Ryan, one of the people who left SVRS for community employment.
Eric Ryan, one of the people who left SVRS for community employment. Watch the video from Tennessee Works here.

So when Tennessee state leaders asked him to apply for technical assistance funded through the U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) Employment First State Leadership Mentoring Program (EFSLMP), Hampton said “no” because he knew it would mean closing the workshop. After a second call from the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, SRVS committed to assisting 20 beneficiaries transition to integrated employment in the fall of 2012.

SRVS began receiving technical assistance from subject matter experts in early 2013. During a presentation at SRVS on customized employment, a technical expert described the benefits of working in the community for people with disabilities, including the opportunity to develop friendships and natural supports in ways that would be more realistic than in workshops. Another technical expert with experience in transforming sheltered workshops led a walk-through of the SRVS workshop.

These experiences opened Hampton’s eyes to what he characterized as “the inequities that were happening within our workshop.” “I didn’t realize it,” he added, “I knew we had to close.”

In August 2013 the SRVS board formally agreed to close the sheltered workshop and on June 30, 2015, after more than 50 years, the workshop closed. Of the 110 beneficiaries who had participated in the workshop, 42 are now successfully employed and 62 are receiving supports as they seek employment.

Story adapted and includes parts of an article originally posted on an Administration for Community Living (ACL) blog, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Have a disability? Here are some of the best places to work

Staffers at the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) and the US Business Leadership Network (USBLN)  have partnered to create the Disability Equality Index (DEI), a national inventory used to assess and benchmark businesses’ disability inclusion practices. Now in its second year, the DEI is recognizing 42 of the 83 companies that participated in 2016 with a 100 percent score and “Best Place to Work” honors. 

Among the top-ranking companies are Starbucks, AMC Theatres, Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, Delta,JPMorgan Chase, P&G, Comcast NBC Universal, HP, General Motors, Walmart, and American Airlines.

A few of these businesses have made news in the past for their disability-friendly practices. Starbucks, for instance, just hired 10 deaf baristas at one of its stores in Kuala Lumpur. AMC, the second largest cinema chain in America, has led the way with sensory-friendly screenings since 2007.

Helena Berger, president and CEO of AAPD, told The Mighty the survey may also guide people with disabilities and their loved ones on where to spend their money.

“The DEI helps people with disabilities better target where there are greater employment opportunities within industry segments,” Berger added. “In addition, it shows which companies are actively engaged and working toward disability inclusion for employees, customers and suppliers.”

Read the full story on The Mightyand learn more about the Disability Equality Index.

Inclusion Works theme for this year’s NDEAM

Much has changed in the disability employment policy arena during the past 20 years. Looking back, the progress Jennifer Sheehy says she’s most thrilled about isn’t just the policy action we’ve seen. “Rather, it’s the significant shift in how we as a nation talk about disability and employment,” writes Sheehy, deputy assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy.

Today, disability has rightfully taken its place in the larger conversation about workplace diversity. Leading companies are now actively working to align diversity with their corporate brand, both internally and externally. This is because they know that inclusion works. They know that groups representing a range of perspectives outperform those with superior, but similar, skill sets. And they know that, as one of the nation’s largest minority groups, people with disabilities are an essential voice to have at the table.

Reflecting this perspective, #InclusionWorks will be the theme for National Disability Employment Awareness Month 2016. NDEAM is a nationwide campaign that celebrates the contributions of workers with disabilities and educates about the value of a diverse workforce inclusive of their skills and talents.

Read the entire post on the U.S. Department of Labor blog.