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Tailored employment puts developmentally disabled to work

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 9, 2010 - At a time when many 20-somethings are having trouble finding suitable work or any employment at all, Libby Waddell, 23, has landed her "dream job." Since fall 2008, Waddell's been employed at St. John's Mercy Medical Center distribution services, where she labels supplies, unloads trucks and is working up to handling receptionist duties.

"I love my job," Waddell said.

To create a perfect-fit position for Waddell, who has Down syndrome, St. John's worked with Life Skills, one of a half-dozen local agencies that serve developmentally disabled and other special-needs adults.

"We're just really happy she was able to get this opportunity, especially with today's economy -- we're thrilled to death," said Libby's mom Anne Waddell.

Anne Waddell's concerns are borne out by the statistics.  The vast majority of disabled people do not work. According to the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics for May, the percentage of people with disabilities in the labor force was 22.3. By comparison, the percentage of people with no disability in the labor force was 70.1. The unemployment rate for those with disabilities was 14.7 percent, compared with 9.1 percent for those with no disability, not seasonally adjusted.

An Uncertain Future No More

Libby Waddell worked briefly at St. John's for a summer after high school, while in a Special School District career transition program. She also worked at Maryville University. But at 21, a big question mark loomed over Waddell's future.

"When we got out of the school setting we were like, 'Uh-oh, what are we going to do now?'" Anne Waddell said. "We sat for six months with nothing to do."

Finally, an opportunity opened up at Valley Industries sheltered workshop. But back at St. John's, distribution services manager Jan O'Connell couldn't stop thinking about Waddell's dedication, sunny nature and reluctance to leave the summer stint. O'Connell cobbled together entry level positions tailored to Libby's skills and those of three others with similar disabilities.

"We started out thinking these folks were only going to apply patient chart stickers," O'Connell said. "But there are no limits to what kinds of work can be added."

Adults with developmental disabilities such as Down syndrome, autism, mental retardation and learning deficits tend to be hard-working and good-hearted and have excellent attendance, according to O'Connell. Some accommodations may be necessary, though: They may include squeezing a stress ball to cope with changes in the work environment or wearing an iPod to block out distractions.

Understanding appropriate workplace behaviors, such as shaking hands instead of hugging in an office setting, can be a challenge as can other habits and traits.

"Pacing, losing focus and childlike behaviors persist for a long time in some of these folks," O'Connell said.

Employers Reap Financial and Goodwill Benefits

Brian Akins, 35, who struggles with learning disabilities and attention issues, has worked at a rental car company and a bakery. Two years ago, Alternative Opportunities, another job-placement organization, helped Akins to apply and interview for a better position with Barnes-Jewish Hospital. Now making $8.50 an hour --- a dollar and a quarter over minimum wage -- Akins is living independently and happy in his work.

"I take care of the floor and the trash, and I cook sometimes," Akins said. "The people are pretty nice; I get along with them."

Creating jobs for clients like Akins and others is a full-time job for Alternative Opportunities' Mary Hosto. Job seekers come to her from the state office of Vocational Rehabilitation, which has several locations in the St. Louis area. Many developmentally disabled clients also have a case worker through the St. Louis Regional Center. Through a series of classes, they learn about topics ranging from interview skills to appropriate workplace attire.

"By the time they get to my desk they've jumped through a whole lot of hoops," Hosto said. "And with pinpoint accuracy we have determined where that person should work."

Hosto calls on potential employers to tout the benefits of hiring her clients and to brainstorm with them about job development.

"If I take someone into Jimmy John's, they may not be able to make a sandwich in 21 seconds, but I can ask management to create a job that might entail stocking chips, stocking napkins and cleaning out under the tables," Hosto said.

Job coaches will continue to work with A.O.-placed employees for as long as necessary. Employers are even more receptive when they find out they can get back a big percentage of what they pay these workers. After an employee has worked 400 hours, the company gets a tax credit of 40 percent of the first $6,000 they've paid out. If the individual quits but has worked at least 120 hours, the employer still gets a tax credit of 25 percent.

"Everyone's looking at their bottom line right now, and it's such a great incentive to hire them," Hosto said. "And it's the right thing to do."

It's the willingness of employers to take a chance that makes these employment programs successful, according to Libby Waddell's mother and father.

"If you don't have a boss or person willing to go to bat for them they're not going to get these jobs," said Joe Waddell. "If the bosses are receptive to the whole idea, it will work."

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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