August 18, 2019

Dream big: Employment for adults with disabilities

What group in the United States today has the highest  percentage of unemployed? It is not women, or one particular ethnic group, or even those without a college degree. The group with the highest percentage of unemployed, some 80 percent in most parts of the country, is adults with disabilities.

That’s about to change with the passage of the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), which has artfully managed to garner bipartisan congressional and presidential support. Once enacted, it will prohibit individuals age 24 and under with disabilities from working in jobs that pay less than $7.25 an hour unless they first try vocational training programs. There will be exemptions for those already working in subminimum wage jobs, such as sheltered workshops, and for severely impacted individuals. Activists consider this an “Employment First” approach to ensuring that as many people with disabilities as possible are able to work in competitive employment positions.

As Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, CEO and president of RespectAbility USA, based in Washington, D.C., explained to me on the phone, this new law will result in better vocational training for high school students with disabilities, with a new emphasis on internships and trying out different types of jobs. “We are moving away from the pity model, which says, ‘We as a society feel sorry for people with disabilities and out of the goodness of our hearts, we will give you something to do and make sure you don’t starve,’ to finding out the unique talents of each person and helping them to contribute in a meaningful and dignified way.”

States will be required to spend more money coordinating programs between public schools and their state departments of rehabilitation, offering students in special education a better path to adulthood than the current system. Right now, a majority of students in special education stay at their public high school until age 22, after which, most often, they end up staying home with their parents, watching TV or on a computer, and living off their monthly SSI check, which, in California, maxes out at $883. Only a small minority go on to post-secondary education, vocational training, volunteer opportunities or paid employment. With fears of hostile work environments and of losing government benefits if their children earn too much, parents are afraid to dream big.

In the Los Angeles Jewish community, we already have some examples of how an “Employment First” approach would work, using equal doses of creativity and collaboration, and there are many exciting ideas in the planning stages.

For starters, there’s the Ezra vocational training program at Camp Ramah in Ojai, now in its 12th year. Older teens and young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities are taught life and work skills and placed in various jobs, at camp or in town. Recognizing that many of these Ezra participants need year-round vocational assistance, there are plans to expand the scope of the program, if funding can be raised.

Since September 2012, Neal Katz, a 20-year-old highly impacted by autism who loves nature, has been working in the Camp JCA Shalom Shemesh organic farm every Thursday during the past school year. (He is part of the Ezra program at Camp Ramah this summer.) 

When Neal was younger, he was a camper at JCA Shalom for 10 years; it was a natural progression for him to move into the paid job. Neal typed: “I water trees, plants and herbs in their organic garden. I pick ripe lemons, oranges and olives … it makes me happy to work. I feel connected to God when I am working in nature.” Bill Kaplan, executive director of the Shalom Institute, is expanding upon Neal’s positive experience and in September will be starting an employment internship program for six adults with developmental disabilities, with plans to expand to 12 participants by January 2015. Interns will be working at the farm at Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu, and selling produce on-site to retreat participants and off-site at farmers markets.

And there’s more: Special-needs expert Lee Chernotsky, a recent participant in Federation’s Present Tense Social Enterprise program, has created ROSIES (“Removing Obstacles Supporting Independence and Everything Social”) — a small-business incubator that will launch for-profit enterprises to create gainful employment and potential ownership opportunities for currently dependent adults. For example, flipping the negative connotations of the “Short Bus” often ridden by students in special education into a “really cool, tricked out healthy ice cream truck,” as Chernotsky said, ROSIES will sell healthy popsicles. And where will the mint flavoring come from? Shemesh organic farm at Camp JCA Shalom!

ROSIES has just hired its first paid employee and is looking at many different partnerships, such as working with Steve Schwartz, CEO of the Art of Tea. It’s also creating a dating app for adults with autism, playfully named “A-Date,” with its target potential users being the ones planning and developing the app, and coding the software.

Yudi Bennett at the nonprofit Exceptional Minds is taking a different creative approach, drawing on the high-level computer skills that come easily to many teens with autism and putting them to use in the entertainment industry. The first graduating class has completed three years of study with experts in animation, special effects and web design. Some grads will go on to well-paying jobs in studios and production companies, while others will stay at Exceptional Minds to be employed in its in-house studio, which provided some of the special effects for the film, “American Hustle.”

ETTA, a local Jewish special-needs organization that merged with New York-based OHEL, is looking to start a vocational training day program in September that would be centered in the Pico-Robertson area and provide a combination of life-skills training and volunteer opportunities.

Last but not least, with funding from the Ruderman Family Foundation, Federation now employs two paid interns with disabilities, who provide administrative support for program staff and make thank-you calls to donors during their 14-week internship. 

For my family, these changes can’t come soon enough. We’ve been worried for years what will happen after our son, Danny, ages out of the special education system at age 22. Although walking and talking are still challenges for him, he has always loved listening to music and can now pick out for himself which songs he wants to hear using his iPad. A few years ago, he played out his dream job of being a DJ as part of a Vista Inspire Miracle Theater production, and he hangs out close to the DJ at every dance party. Maybe it is time for us to dream big.