With low unemployment, advocates push employers to hire people with disabilities

  • Max Rand works at Five Guys in Concord, cleaning off tables Friday. The bureau at the state’s Department of Education in charge of helping people with disabilities find work and live independently announced it would need to reduce services in order to avoid a budget shortfall. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 4/21/2018 10:38:33 PM

Twice a week, Maxwell Rand boards a bus from Concord High School and makes the trek to Five Guys on Fort Eddy Road. There, the mustachioed, bespectacled 19-year old will sweep, clean tables, wash the windows and occasionally make milkshakes.

His favorite part, he said, is “talking to the people.” Emptying out the trash, less so.

If he gets a little confused, he can consult a velcroed arm-band that holds step-by-step instructions about what he’s supposed to do. His coworkers can help him out, too, as can Caroline Keane, an educational assistant from the high school assigned to be his job coach. These days, Keane said she mostly tries to stay out of his way.

“As he gets more competent, my role fades. So I usually spend most of my time over there in the corner, just keeping eyes on. And he does all this himself, independently,” she said.

Maxwell, who has autism, is part of a program at Concord High that helps students with disabilities, aged 18 to 21, get work experience before they transition out of the school system. The program is trying to chip away at a stubborn problem – dismal rates of employment for people with disabilities.

Nationwide, disability advocates recently celebrated some good news: the roughly 40-point employment gap between people with disabilities and without constricted somewhat, likely thanks to a rebounding economy. But on the ground in New Hampshire, advocates say far more needs to be done, and just this week recruited Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, to establish a task force to study the issue.

Meanwhile, bad news came down the pike, too: Vocational Rehabilitation, the bureau at the state’s Department of Education in charge of helping people with disabilities find work and live independently, announced Friday it would need to reduce services in order to avoid a budget shortfall. Commissioner of Education Frank Edelblut said the agency would probably have to find “about a million” in spending cuts.

It’s unclear at this point where the axe will fall. Edelblut said those currently getting help through the agency will retain services, but that newcomers would be prioritized based on need.

At Concord High, Sara Hans, the special education teacher who helped coordinate Maxwell’s internship, is worried.

“I think it is going to hurt us,” she said.

Vocational Rehabilitation had just ramped up its services, and had been contracting with community programs to do outreach to employers, work with kids to identify career goals, and, crucially, pay for transportation – a key obstacle to employment for those with disabilities.

But Hans said the main problem remains the same: too few employers are willing to take the leap.

“We need to have more employers that are open to hiring our students with disabilities,” she said. “They will be some of your most valuable employees. And most loyal.”

Americans with disabilities reached a milestone in March, with employment indicators showing increases for the 24th consecutive month, according to the Kessler Foundation and the University of New Hampshire, which tracks disability employment trends. And while employment rates for people without disabilities still remain much higher, gains for disabled people outpaced those of their non-disabled peers.

“It’s one of the first times since we’ve been keeping monthly records, since 2008, that we’ve seen this gap narrow. So it’s pretty interesting,” said Andrew Houtenville, the director of research at the University of New Hampshire’s Institute on Disability.

Two market conditions are probably contributing to this progress, Houtenville said. On the one hand, rising wages might be helping people overcome obstacles to employment like transportation. And on the other, rock-bottom unemployment numbers are likely pressuring employers to consider workers they might have otherwise overlooked.

“We don’t know for sure, but it’s likely due to the economy being at what some people call ‘full employment.’ And it’s really about employers kind of looking into places they hadn’t seen before. Looking into new networks to tap into,” he said.

That certainly bears out in Max’s case.

“It’s definitely a different staffing avenue that we’ve been pursuing because of low-unemployment,” said Kipp Johnson, the human resources director at Gellfam Management, the franchisee that owns all Five Guys locations in New Hampshire. But Johnson said there was another reason New Hamphire restaurants started actively recruiting employees with disabilities – an executive at the company has a relative with disability, and New York locations have for years worked with area agencies to hire disabled workers.

That’s not uncommon. Hans and Meagan Comstock, another teacher in the transition program at Concord High, both mentioned employers with a personal connection to disability are typically the ones willing to work with them. That’s especially true in smaller businesses, Houtenville said.

Lisa Beaudoin is the director of ABLE New Hampshire, the disability rights organization that pushed for the task force. Beaudoin wants the task force to look at ways to simplify the bureaucracy for accessing services, provide more transportation options, and, most crucially, get more employers are board.

“The problem is enormous. And it’s often being worked on in silos,” she said.

Beaudoin often points to the stubborn 40-point gap in employment between people with disabilities and those without as plainly wrong. But she’s also concerned about quality of work. About 60 percent of people with disabilities who work and receive supports and services only work an average of 2 to 9 hours a week, she said. And available jobs often don’t pay very well.

It’s a concern that’s shared by Hans and Comstock.

“A lot of the jobs we have right now, the employers treat us so wonderfully, and are so welcoming to our kids. But the jobs that they’re doing are like – so many cleaning jobs,” Comstock said. “They have a lot more to offer.”

Both teachers said they hope a greater diversity of employers will decide to work with their program. Manufacturing, for example, would be great they said, especially for autistic students who excel at following complex, multi-step procedures. And while employing someone with a disability requires some level of flexibility, they emphasized that students and employers aren’t left to fend for themselves – the program matches jobs with the right students, provides job coaches, one-on-one help and transportation.

“I think what we found is once people let us in the door, it works. It’s like, ‘oh, this is great. We’re helping you, you’re helping us.’ But it’s scary to commit to trying something like that out,” Comstock said.

(Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3321 or lduffort@cmonitor.com.)

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