The numbers say a striking employment gap persists between Americans with and without disabilities. Some 44 percent of intellectually disabled adults are in the labor force, either employed or looking for work, while just 34 percent are actually working. That compares with 83 percent of non-disabled, working-age adults who are in the workforce.
Most Americans with intellectual challenges or other developmental disabilities remain shut out of the workforce, despite changing attitudes and billions of dollars spent on government programs to help them. About 28 percent of working-age adults with intellectual disabilities have never held a job. Even when they do find work, it’s often part time, in a dead-end position or for pay well below that which workers without disabilities receive.
Employment is crucial for improving the quality of life for many of the people served by DEC and others like them. Yet the jobs picture is as bleak now as it was more than a decade ago.
On the positive side, 62 percent of disabled people who do work in a competitive setting have been at the job for three years or more, showing they can work and stay with it. Just how valuable are these workers? Listen to someone who has provided employment opportunities to qualified candidates with intellectual and developmental disabilities — and reaped the benefits.
“I feel good knowing I’ve helped people with challenges and, at the same time, I’ve been rewarded with great employees,” states Dave Green, food service director at CulinArt Group, which operates on-site corporate, higher education, private school, healthcare and destination recreation/leisure dining facilities in 18 states. Green, who supervises five facilities on the Blue Bell campus of Montgomery County Community College and oversees food-related facilities on the college’s Pottstown campus, is particularly impressed with the work performed by Lura Williams, a utility associate at MCCC for more than 25 years and someone who has been associated with DEC for the past four years.
With a positive attitude, unbridled enthusiasm and a work ethic that’s rarely seen in today’s workplace, Lura tends to a host of sanitation and maintenance responsibilities at the campus cafeteria. She even finds time to give Green’s catering staff a helping hand, and makes sure the 40 or so children attending the on-campus day care center are properly fed. Five days a week, regardless of weather conditions, Lura’s up at 6 o’clock … rides two buses from her home in Norristown … and is energetically exercising her job responsibilities by 7:30 a.m.
“Her dedication makes it great for me,” notes Green. “Everybody — her co-workers, the students, the faculty, visitors to the campus, the day care kids —everybody loves Lura. She’s a cheerleader who encourages everyone to perform at their highest level; she proactively takes on responsibilities, and the smile she wears on even the worst of days is contagious.”
Even in the best of relationships problems can arise every now and then. Which is why Lura’s supervisor is appreciative of the role played by Patti Brey, a DEC employment consultant who covers all of Montgomery County. “On those rare occasions when some sort of misunderstanding or miscommunication occurs with a disabled employee,” Green says, “I can talk out the issues with Patti and count on her to respond quickly — handling things on the back-end, performing the follow-up, even taking and giving suggestions.”
It’s a classic win-win situation. CulinArt benefits from the job performed by someone who is reliable, responsible, meticulous, conscientious and a productive team member. And Lura Williams says the opportunity has made her a better person.
“Because of my job, I have more self-respect,” she explains. “I have more confidence in my ability to achieve. The money I earn allows me to go shopping, go to the movies and have fun with my friends. I’m proud of myself — and I encourage people like me to do it, too.”
All they need is a chance.