By: Rob Hans, Shift NJ
Most of us take our employment for granted. Once our job search is completed, our job becomes a part of who we are, fulfilling two basic tenets of life. First, our employment supplies us with meaning and purpose. Second, our employment is the source of income that allows us to fully incorporate into society. Unfortunately for individuals with disabilities, the goal of competitive employment is a tremendous obstacle to overcome.
The harsh reality for working-age individuals with a disability is that only 18.7 percent of individuals with a disability were employed in 2017, this according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics press release of June 21, 2018. The good news is that with the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, the foundation for improvement has begun. Although much work needs to be done to fulfill the lofty principles and objectives of the ADA, there are success stories we can point to which prove that competitive employment for all is a possibility.
Here are two such stories from the files of Shift NJ – names of individuals and employers are omitted or generalized to protect privacy.
Jake is a 2015 college graduate with a B.S in Psychology, and a strong desire to work in the education or childcare fields. He has been diagnosed with Pervasive Development Disorder and Anxiety Disorder, which manifests itself at times with struggles in executive functioning, socialization, and processing emotions.
After graduation, Jake began working at a non-profit after school program on a part-time basis. Here he assisted in supervising 40 students in 1st through 3rd grade. In addition, he supplemented this experience by volunteering at two private schools for individuals with special needs.
At the end of the school year in 2017, his part-time position was no longer available, and he was informed he would not be rehired for the coming school year. It was at this time that Jake was referred to Shift NJ via his local Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services office. Shift NJ employment specialists began the process with Jake of improving his resume, creating directed cover letters to local schools, and teaching/ reviewing interview skills.
It was apparent to the employment specialists that Jake possessed strong abilities in math and computer skills. After an extensive job search, an appropriate position was found at a local public-school district. He was offered the position of a paraprofessional, supporting a pre-school teacher at the district’s elementary school. The employment specialist was able to assist Jake in completing the paperwork and fingerprinting expected by the district’s Board of Education office. Jake’s responsibilities included assisting with classroom preparation, reinforcing instructional materials, following the lead of the teacher, helping with classroom management, and ensuring that students remained on task.
It became evident when Jake started working in the classroom that limited job coaching was needed, and the employment specialist was available on site to observe and offer advice between classes. With support, Jake was quickly able to learn how best to support the students and teacher, and adapt to the school environment. Jake became a valued member of the educational team, and was hired again for a paraprofessional position in the 2018 – 2019 school year. Jake is well on his way to a successful career in education!
Jane is a 2007 high school graduate with a love for the fashion industry and a desire to work in retail. She is diagnosed with Pervasive Development Disorder and Schizoaffective Disorder, and has difficulty completing tasks correctly without reminders, and maintaining focus in the face of outside distractions.
Prior to her referral from DVRS to Shift NJ, Jane volunteered for a local non-profit with some success; however, her previous attempts at competitive employment were not as successful. In one of her jobs as a greeter for a large retailer, the interaction with customers was difficult and more than she could handle. In another job working for a major clothing retailer as a sales associate, the responsibilities became overwhelming. Even though she had a love for fashion and enjoyed this job, it became necessary for Jane to move on.
When referred to Shift NJ, the employment specialist began with the basics of resume creation, cover letter composition, interview skills, and workplace etiquette. As Jane built on her vocational skills and overall confidence, her employment specialist began the process of supporting Jane in her job search by conducting job development. She was soon given an opportunity for competitive employment at a local retail store with the responsibilities of sorting, tagging, and hanging clothing. The job paid over minimum wage and Jane was scheduled to work three days a week.
Jane started the job in the early part of March and her responsibilities were to remove clothing from large bins and hang individual items correctly on racks for display. For the first week, Jane required a great deal of hand over hand prompting. Additionally, she needed a lot of support to understand her schedule and proper sign-in and sign-out procedures. The employment specialist also worked with Jane on proper interactions with fellow co-workers and supervisors, so as not to become distracted by outside activities.
In about two weeks, the hand over hand prompting was replaced by verbal prompting, and shortly thereafter, Jane’s work production notably increased. After continued phasing out of prompting, Jane was able to complete her tasks correctly and efficiently, and her supervisor was able to give her additional responsibilities of returns from the dressing room. By the third week of April, Jane did not require the presence or prompting of the employment specialist and began working completely independently.
Now, over a year later, Jane’s manager shared this comment with Shift NJ staff: “Working with Jane has been a positive experience. She takes direction well, and she tries really hard. She has improved a lot since she started working here and has gradually worked her way up to doing 46 racks a day. She is always on time and learns skills very quickly. She is pleasant, has a great attitude, and does her job very well.”
What began as a great challenge for Jane has become second nature, and she is now seen as a valued employee contributing to the bottom line of the company. She now has a renewed sense of confidence in her ability and is a proud contributor to her family income. She has proven that if given the opportunity and support, individuals with disabilities can thrive in competitive employment!