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People with disabilities today expect, want and deserve to have the opportunity to work, just like anyone else. However, the nation’s competitive, integrated employment rate for adults with intellectual disabilities who are seeking at least part-time employment is a dismal 18%.
At Judith Creed Homes for Adult Independence (JCHAI), 70% of our members with disabilities are employed. We provide independent living services for adults with intellectual disabilities and autism. Although our primary services are residential in nature, we believe that having productive employment is integral to having a successful life. Moreover, we have seen from the experiences at Walgreens, Lowes, AMC and local employers such as Hershey’s, Twizzlers, and Jefferson Hospital that people with disabilities can be model employees. They can be loyal, responsible and highly successful. But times are changing, expectations are higher than ever, and we needed to change too.
JCHAI was founded in 1987 during the height of the popularity of sheltered workshops. JCHAI was also created before the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which legislated freedom from employment discrimination for people with disabilities and the right to reasonable accommodations to make employment more feasible. How did we as an organization transform from one that might have opted for sheltered workshop employment as a rule to one that espoused the principles of Employment First, which are set out by the Department of Labor?
We began to see early on how critically important employment is to the success of individuals with disabilities who wish to live in the community. For our participants, having jobs in competitive, integrated employment settings brings benefits that employment in a workshop does not – the opportunity to interact and form real relationships with typical people in their community as well as earn a real wage. Because we know our members well from our regular interaction, we use this knowledge to seek out potential jobs in the community that fit well with a particular member’s unique abilities.
JCHAI has practices in place to support those who have jobs. Our staff trains members to use public transportation and maintains contact with employers so that if situations arise where the employer may need some help with a JCHAI member/employee, our staff will offer job coaching or other assistance.
JCHAI also has developed a number of training opportunities for our members to help them build employable skills while they seek employment. For example, many years ago, we started a volunteer program with the Perelman Jewish Day School where JCHAI members make and serve lunch to the students. Although many of the people who are participating in this program are retired and enjoy spending some of their free time with children, this program has also helped to train new JCHAI members in how to succeed in the workplace and specifically how to work in food service. Several JCHAI members have been able to use these skills on their resumes to convince employers to hire them. At the same time, there is a very high value to the students at the school who get to see and befriend people with significant intellectual and other disabilities, and who are able to succeed at work every day. Learning an appreciation for diversity, inclusion and bringing out the talents of all people are wonderful lessons to learn at an early age.
The benefits of gainful employment are evident. We should not expect less of people with disabilities than we do of the typical population. Everyone in our community deserves the chance to contribute his or her skills and talents, and be fairly compensated for them. Employment First is the right goal to help people with disabilities be a real force in the marketplace.