The unemployment rate for people with disabilities was 8 percent in 2018: more than twice the rate for the general population, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And getting a job is only the first step: staying employed is also a challenge.
UPR's JoLynne Lyon speaks to an employer, an educator and a person with autism to find out more about how some workers with disabilities found the supports they need to stay employed.
Any given day, you can find Ryan singing and dancing with his coworkers at Malouf. It happens a lot at Malouf, a furniture store in Cache Valley.
“We have company parties,” said Brian Blotter, the human relations director from Malouf. He was talking about Ryan Dickey, who has a disability. He’s also very involved in his job. “Ryan will dance most of the night for us.
“The way I understand it is that Utah State reached out to Sam, our owner, and he agreed to bring on Ryan and Sarah, and they have worked for us for two years,” Blotter said. “It’s working out better than I expected. All our employees gravitate towards Ryan and Sara, and they’ve made a lot of lasting friendships here.”
Malouf has a lot of social activities: weekly company meetings, free lunch in the dining area, events like movie nights and Casino night, company parties. Ryan participates a lot.
But for some employees with disabilities, fitting in can be a real challenge.
“A lot of times people with autism are not so aware of how others are feeling about them,” said Taylor Walters. “I currently work at Columbus Community Center in the Nextwork Program. I’m a job coach and job developer there. It’s a program that helps adults with autism get into the workforce.
“We don’t always know if we’re doing a good job or a bad job unless someone like a manager or a fellow coworker is giving us that feedback.”
Taylor is also on the autism spectrum, and he knows firsthand the challenges job seekers with autism face.
“Where I first worked was a big struggle because one of the things I don’t do well with is repetition," he said. "When they moved me to the laundry department where you literally stand in one place folding laundry and hanging them up, it drove me insane. I wish that I would’ve been able to disclose my disability. I’m more open about it now. At that age when I was first working, I definitely tried to keep it under wraps.”
Valerie D’Astous of the University of Utah works with employers, educators and employees to raise awareness on employing people who literally think differently. She leads the Utah Neurodiversity Workforce Project and works with employers. She also meets with people from colleges and universities all over the state.
“We reach out to a lot of tech companies or biomedical companies,” she said. “So they realize that they have employees that might be neurodiverse. When we did an awareness training we had 108 employees attend and we had three employees disclose after the fact who did not before.
“We hear a lot that this is absolutely not charity work. These individuals are really skilled and talented, but employers don’t know how to best support them.
“Say if you say to someone to photocopy these papers, insinuating to photocopy this and get it back to me, and it’s not clear. So they’ll photocopy and not follow through with the next step.”
“It’s not just simply a disability, and people who need help,” Taylor said. “A lot of these people have a lot to offer to their communities and to society. A lot of people with autism are some very great tech geniuses because one thing that they are able to do that most people would almost consider a superpower is that they can focus on one thing for hours at a time.”
Blotter at Malouf is working with an employee who has a different disability. For Ryan, the challenges are different too, but they’ve found ways to make it work.
“It’s hard for us to understand what he is saying. When he gets nervous or when he’s trying to communicate, he speaks really, really fast. And they gave him a card, and he’ll touch a picture. So that helps slow him down so that we can understand his communication.”
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