Disabled Workers: A Potential Boon for Your In-plant
There is nothing unusual about having a disability. According to 2021 findings by the U.S Census, 41.1 million Americans — 12.7% of the population — have some sort of a disability.
Whether a person’s disability is physical, developmental, intellectual, or the result of an injury, one commonality is that the person is likely unemployed or underemployed. Further, that same person is more likely to be living in poverty.
Hiring people with disabilities can improve their lives. It can also provide access to a dedicated, capable workforce, though it may require a change in thinking.
Where There is a Need
“If you’re not familiar with what disability means,” says Chris Schelin, director of operations at Center for Disability Services’ Mail Fulfillment Center, in Albany, New York, “it’s easy to put a negative on what it is.” A disconnect for many employers, he says, is in equating a person’s limitations with their ability to help on the workforce.
Schelin has worked extensively with the disability community. For more than 20 years he’s worked with the Center for Disability Services, a health and human services organization that provides a broad range of services for all types of disabled people, ranging from home health aid to summer camps. For the last eight years, he has managed the organization’s Mail Fulfillment Center, which currently employs 85 people, roughly 50 of whom are disabled. The shop, which started as a manual mail sorting operation, has grown with technology and added automated pre-sorting, inserting, and printing services for its customers. The program’s purpose, he says, is “to help those who can’t yet work independently.”
One key aspect of employing people with disabilities is accommodation, which means adjusting the job or the nature of the work so the disabled person can meet the job requirements. Schelin says accommodations at the Mail Fulfillment Center can be as obvious as providing a lower working surface for a person in a wheelchair, to something less obvious, such as positioning noise-sensitive workers away from noisy equipment. While workers at the center must interview, get hired, and be able to do the job, accommodation helps meets them where they are.
It is not uncommon, Schelin says, for some workers with disabilities to need job coaches or other aids to help them access the work and stay on task. He says many in his facility receive assistance from the State of New York, which makes funding and people available for this purpose. While he says is it’s not common for the shop’s employees to take what they have learned and move into jobs with other employers, it does sometimes happen, bringing better pay and better opportunity.
One of the primary benefits of workers with disabilities is they are likely to stay with the company, and Schelin describes his disabled staff as being the best staff he has.
“They’re happy to be here,” he says. “It allows them to have a job where they might not otherwise have one out in the community.”
While this is undeniably a good thing, it also speaks to the lack of opportunity extended by the same employers who today struggle to find and retain workers.
Asked what advice he would offer employers interested in hiring workers with disabilities, Schelin points out that accommodation should be an expected part of the employment process. The biggest change, he says, is in mindset: “Getting past the idea that they’re a lesser level of employee. In most cases, that’s really not true.”
Sydney: A Case in Point
At Messiah University Press, an in-plant located in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, the presence of an employee with Down Syndrome has illustrated the value workers with disabilities can bring to an operation, and the benefits the operation can bring to the employee. The eight full-time/two part-time employee shop produces a range of products for the university, as well as for the Mechanicsburg Area School District, using both analog and digital printing equipment.
Director Dwayne Magee says the in-plant’s current disabled employee, Sydney Wilson, was connected with his shop after she had graduated from high school. She currently works six hours per week, with her time divided between the pressroom and post office.
Sydney’s work at the in-plant is bolstered by the presence of employees from area school districts who serve in life skills support and job coaching roles. Messiah University, he notes, partners with the Center for Industrialized Training, which he says works “to provide gainful employment to men and women of varying capabilities.”
Sydney’s presence on staff furthers Messiah University’s goal of achieving “inclusive excellence.”
“The responsibility for pursuing inclusive excellence is a collective one that falls on the shoulders of every individual and office on campus,” Magee says. “Having Sydney on board in our department helps us give hands and feet to this important goal.”
The position Sydney holds, Magee says, was created specifically for her. She and her parents read through the position description — which details physical tasks such as pushing and lifting, as well as the ability to tolerate exposure to noise and fumes and wear personal protective equipment — with the understanding that she would be working in a production environment.
“Sydney does very well with it all,” Magee says. In the day-to-day, Sydney is accompanied by a job coach who helps her manage tasks, stay focused, and ensures she takes breaks. Noise sensitivity is addressed with noise-blocking headphones.
Asked how Sydney’s presence on the workforce has changed other employees’ perceptions of disabled people, Magee says he enjoys seeing employees interacting with her.
“Sydney has the greatest laugh,” he says, “and she generally comes to work very excited about the day. It can be contagious.”
He says Sydney’s excitement helps the team stay positive and remember what’s important. Asked how the job has changed Sydney’s life, he says, “I hope she feels good about having a job and knowing she is successful. She truly prospers in her work, and we are better at what we do, thanks to her.”
Tracey Wilson, Sydney’s mother, says Sydney likes being around other employees and is very proud of the work she does. She adds that after high school, many people with disabilities find there is not much in society for them to do. With the help of a placement agency, she says, Sydney tried a couple of other jobs before starting at Messiah.
“They had the time and energy to work with her,” she says. “It’s the right place for her to be.”
As a parent, Wilson says she’s happy Sydney has come as far as she has.
“Way back when,” she reflects, “I worried about the future. It’s amazing to see where we are now.” She wants Sydney to have the same opportunities as her other, non-disabled daughter.
“It’s amazing to see how she has matured and progressed,” she says of Sydney. “It gives me a sense of pride.”
Wilson says employers looking to hire people with disabilities should consider that not all special needs people have the same abilities.
“Give them a chance, and figure out what is best for them,” she advises. “Find strengths, watch interactions, and place them where it works. You need to give them a chance, because you never know what they can accomplish. Give them a chance to try to show what they can do.”
Related story: Dignity & Purpose: Hiring People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities