Pat Loy still remembers like it was yesterday one particular day 15 years ago when she picked up her son, Chris, who has Down syndrome, from his job.
It was after his shift at a popular bakery and coffee house and the manager asked Pat to come inside to speak with her.
A combination of anger, frustration and protection swept over Pat when the manager told her that Chris, then 21, didn’t belong.
“That’s what was going on in the community,” Loy says. “That’s why he’s out there working and changing the way people think.”
But stories like Chris’ are not uncommon. It’s why the percentage of those with disabilities at the working age in the labor force is about one-third of those with no disability, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. And although the percentage of those with disabilities who are employed has only slightly risen in the past years, to 18.5 percent in May 2016, the public view is beginning to change, thanks to adult programs and companies that are helping individuals with varying disabilities find and keep their perfect job.
Today, Chris has found success working at WeatherTech Automotives with the help of Parents Alliance Employment Project, a Lisle-based agency that assists individuals with disabilities find a job. PAEP provides services to any individual who is able to work independently, once supports are put in place at their worksite.
After an individual registers with their local Division of Rehabilitation Services office, they work one-on-one with a PAEP employment specialist for career counseling, job training and coaching. Loy says she even receives phone calls from PAEP to make sure Chris is still happy with his placement.
Loy admits that at first, the WeatherTech employees were a bit apprehensive about hiring someone with a disability. They only gave him three-hour shifts two days a week, but that changed once he proved he was a dedicated worker. In fact, Chris’ boss has told Loy that Chris manages to complete in three days work that takes the second shift five days to produce.
“What they found in Chris was a really good employee,” Loy says. “That he shows up, is there every day and does his job while he’s there and takes it seriously.”
Making it work
Some companies are taking employing individuals with disabilities a step further.
Hart Schaffner Marx, a men’s clothing store in Des Plaines, is not only hiring people with autism, but also is completely adapting the workspace to make it more accommodating.
Jordan Allison, 21, and Marice Aiston, 24, have worked at Hart Schaffner Marx for nearly a year with the help of Autism Workforce, a company that tailored the work environment to fit their needs. Allison works as a swatch button specialist, while Aiston brings custom suit measurements to the factory.
Autism Workforce provided the structure and support they needed, from color-coding employment papers to painting the walls blue and placing green plants throughout the office to create a more calming effect. It also incorporated a 30-minute workout each morning before Allison’s and Aiston’s shifts that helps them stay in shape, as well as to focus and reduce behaviors seen in autism, such as hand flapping.
Ashley Palomino, the Autism Workforce director, says people with autism often have a hard time keeping a job because they are not given the structure and assistance they received school.
At their workstations, Allison and Aiston each have a binder in case they forget one of the steps for their jobs. Allison has a checklist next to his desk so he remembers to complete all of his button requests, and Aiston can follow the signs hung throughout the factory in case she forgets where to go. If they get really stuck, they each have a Hart Schaffner Marx employee mentor who has been trained about autism and how to support Allison and Aiston at work.
“It has come down to taking all of these strategies and supports that they’re used to (in school) and carrying those over into the workplace so that they understand it, do it and be successful,” Palomino says.
Autism Workforce also started a mock interview program through Hart Schaffner Marx where they train Human Resources employees to guide interviews and give feedback to individuals with disabilities who are hoping to get some interviewing practice. Palomino believes this is the first step to helping them build skills needed for a job.
“Now that a special education teacher can work on breaking down a resume, so that maybe in a month or two that individual can actually come and interview with an HR manager at a company, which is very different from a classroom,” she says.
It’s more than just a job
But these jobs are about more than just fitting in and earning money.
Aiston’s mother, Pauline Shoback, says Aiston’s job is helping her to communicate better, a skill that many with autism find difficult. Before this job, Aiston did work inputting data into the computer at their park district, but she had a difficult time communicating and fired.
“With this job, she’s happy,” Shoback says. “The immediate peer workers and bosses are terrific. They’re really a community that cares. It’s helping her to be mature and plan things out.”
Jordan Allison’s father, Stephen, says Jordan understands the customer satisfaction aspect of his work.
“Just as every typical employee does, you take pride in what you do, whether you’re hauling garbage or assistant to the president,” Stephen says. “This is not just busy work; it’s an important job and he has to do it.”
Chris Loy’s past jobs often required only menial tasks, such as cleaning or refilling soda machines, but his mother says his job at WeatherTech is much more than that.
He creates the kits that come with the WeatherTech product by collecting nuts, bolts and instructions and assembling the boxes. Loy says when you ask him about it, he’ll say, “I love my job. I love my life.”
“What I like about WeatherTech is that it’s not bagging groceries, it’s not working at McDonald’s, it’s industry,” she says. “It’s something that a young man of his age would be doing, and there are young men of his age working there.”
Autism Workforce works directly with Clearbrook and Have Dreams to find potential employees for the adapted jobs at Hart Schaffner Marx, so they are not currently accepting outside applications.
But individuals with disabilities seeking employment can directly contact Parents-Alliance
Employment Project for employment options once they’ve contacted their local Division of Rehabilitation Services office.
Looking back to when Chris was a child, Loy says people treated those with disabilities badly. She remembers a time when he wasn’t allowed to be on the playground, in the lunchroom or in the library at the same time as the other kids.But now, with job opportunities like the one at WeatherTech, more doors opening for him.
“Individuals with disabilities are working in the community and people are seeing that they are a part of this community,” she says. “That bridge is getting stronger and completely different now. It’s wonderful to see it changing.”