Maine people without disabilities might not spend much time thinking about those who have Asperger’s syndrome, autism or Down syndrome. Part of the reason may be because people with cognitive disabilities have often been segregated, such as in adult activity centers. Though the practice may work for some, providers should not be afraid to think differently and find ways to align a person’s skills with a business-related need in the community.
Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, is sponsoring legislation called the Employment First Maine Act, which would require state agencies that are supporting people with disabilities to prioritize helping them find employment. The bill’s effect still needs to be studied — to see how exactly it would affect agencies such as the Bureau of Employment Services, Bureau of Rehabilitation and MaineCare — but the basic idea is easy to support. People with disabilities can benefit from, and benefit others, by working and integrating themselves more into their communities.
The underlying goal should not be to remove people with severe intellectual disabilities from government support. Their lives do depend on it. The goal should be to use those tax dollars in a cost-effective way that improves recipients’ buying power, health and overall safety. People with disabilities who work are giving back to their community, tend to be more active and are known by more people, which improves their security. Until recently, Maine has primarily focused on placing people with disabilities in available jobs.
But many people, particularly those with more severe limitations, are not going to find work by looking at job advertisements. The process often needs to be customized. That’s when a provider must gather a full understanding of what the person enjoys doing and knowledge of the business needs in the community. The process requires the essential skill of networking.
“I believe anyone who wants to work, can work, and I can find anybody a job,” said Debbie Gilmer, project director of Employment for ME Workforce Development System and president of the Maine Association of Persons Supporting Employment First.
One of the first steps is to figure out what a person truly wants. Gail Fanjoy, executive director of Katahdin Friends Incorporated in Millinocket, which helps integrate people with disabilities into their communities, described one client’s experience — a woman with Down syndrome who had previously worked at a department store. In her old job, she had been responsible for returning clothes in the dressing rooms to their place. The woman said she loved that job.
So Katahdin Friends Incorporated, or KFI, tried to find her a job in a local thrift store, so she could work around clothes again, but the woman resisted. It turned out it wasn’t the clothes in the previous job that had mattered to her. Staff learned there had been a buzzer people had been required to ring to call her, in order to bring the key to get into the dressing rooms. She had loved the feeling of being needed. So KFI ended up finding her a job laundering and folding towels for hairstylists because she enjoyed being part of the social environment.
In another case, a man with Asperger’S syndrome enjoyed data entry, music and stocking shelves. So KFI tried to find tasks he could do at grocery, music and book stores.
“When you go in and negotiate tasks, that really is how customized employment works,” Fanjoy said.
Oftentimes employers don’t have specific job openings, but they can free up other employees by hiring someone to fulfill one or two specific tasks.
In this man’s case, KFI found a need at a local tractor sales store that had no computerized inventory. The man was so good at his job that he worked his way out of it, Fanjoy said.
Maine’s treatment of people with disabilities has evolved over time. Just 50 years ago, children with intellectual disabilities weren’t allowed in public schools and either lived at home or were institutionalized. As they grew up, they were often placed in sheltered workshops, doing work for less than minimum wage. Gradually, they were supported to work. But Maine can continue the trajectory and do more for people with cognitive disabilities. You will be surprised by what people can do when given the chance. They show that, given the right opportunity, a disability doesn’t necessarily hold someone back. It’s everyone else who might.