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End the stigma of people with special needs in the workforce

Photo courtesy of Erskine Green Training Institute

Growing up, I asked my brother numerous times what he dreamed of doing when he got older. I’ve gotten an array of responses. One that hung on the longest was the dream of being “an actor like Matt LeBlanc,” playing someone like Joey on “Friends,” although that dream dwindled and now plays out through “Friends” skits in our basement a few times a year. He also told me he just wanted to go to college and be a normal student. He joined a program at Kent State University to learn job skills and my family soon learned that some people in the education system are not as supportive of accommodations as you might hope they’d be. Now, when I ask my brother what he dreams of doing, he tells me he wants to be a poet. He’s memorized the likes of Edgar Allen Poe and has performed at open mic nights to an abundance of applause.

These seem to be simple dreams to me, but there’s one factor that needs to be considered: my brother Sean has special needs. He’s 25 and has periventricular leukomalacia, a developmental disorder he’s had since birth. He’s also on the autism spectrum, visually impaired and has mild cerebral palsy. But, all things considered, Sean is a highly capable individual, and his friendly personality works well for him.

Why, then, is it so hard to find a job that he really enjoys and at which he excels?

Sean went through a special education program in high school and graduated over three years ago, but it seems as if his education and job skills coaching just hasn’t been enough.

According to the Autism Society, 35 percent of young adults (ages 19-23) with autism have not had a job or received postgraduate education after leaving high school. But it’s not because they’re not looking.

There are many reasons why employers may not be hiring those with special needs or disabilities. The type and/or severity of the disability can affect the employer’s perception of employment of the person with the disability. My brother is visually impaired, but that does not mean he cannot see. He has poor fine motor skills, but that does not mean he is unable to do all tasks involving his hands. Just because someone has one or multiple disabilities does not mean they are incapable of working or that you can’t determine how to leverage their strengths rather than focus on their challenges.

Some employers also hold stereotypes regarding people with disabilities, but these stereotypes are not substantiated by any type of direct experience. Seeing on paper that someone has special needs or disabilities can cause an employer to have preconceived judgment about the individual, causing them to be hesitant to hire them from the get-go.

Another main argument many employers have is the concern about productivity of people with disabilities against those without. A study from Stanford Law School has debunked this idea, showing that 91 percent of workers with disabilities were rated either “average” or “better than average,” the same as their counterparts without disabilities.

There is also little to no extra cost to hiring those with disabilities, as many can work independently. Those who need extra help usually have a job coach, someone who works alongside them to make sure their tasks are being executed appropriately until the job coach is able to “fade.” But the cost of a job coach is not at a detriment to the employer; job coaches are usually paid for by the state. While working at McDonald’s my brother has had a job coach who helped him learn the tasks required and keep him focused while he was working—it’s expected that the coach will be fading very shortly.

To me, it’s clear that there are many more benefits than overall downfalls to hiring employees with special needs or disabilities. For one, many of those with special needs are some of the most cheerful, happy-go-lucky people you will ever meet. They have smiles on their faces and tend to have positive attitudes. My brother is basically loved by all and is always told that he knows how to brighten people’s days. Also, having a diverse staff would be more beneficial to a company. Participants of a Job Accommodations Network report found that their employees with disabilities are hardworking, loyal, reliable and rarely absent, therefore there is little turnover.

I think the biggest issue with hiring employees with special needs is a lack of education on both the employers and the employees’ parts. Employers are not aware of the benefits to hiring those with disabilities, and employees with disabilities do not always have the proper resources to receive training to be job-ready.

We need places like the Erskine Green Training Institute, a program my brother went through to teach him the skills necessary to become a restaurant host. He was able to memorize table numbers, rehearse answers to questions people might call and ask him; he was able to take people to their tables and do other tasks common to those who work as a host. My family is so happy he was able to learn skills such as these to be more valuable in the workplace and strive toward a higher-paying job.

I know that people with special needs are good employees. They work hard, have a positive attitude and bring diversity to the workplace. I’m tired of my brother not being treated as if he is capable when I know he is. Now, it is our job to educate employers to the benefits of hiring people with disabilities. We need to give people with special needs the voice they don’t always have; it’s what they deserve.

Devyn Giannetti is the Collegian Managing Editor and can be reached at dgiannetti@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @Devyn_Giannetti.

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