The Covid-19 pandemic has underscored the need to recognize and amplify the disabled community, especially as this community has faced a heightened concern in contracting the virus. Now that stores and offices around the country are beginning to reopen, there is an opportunity to foster inclusivity and create individualized opportunities for the developmentally disabled to thrive.
Many brands already use neurodiversity programs, which offer employment programs for workers with developmental disabilities. Ford’s FordWorks initiative, for example, is geared toward inclusive hiring, and JPMorgan has an Autism at Work program. It’s a great first step, but some experts in the field believe these programs are not tailored enough to the individual employee to offer a route to success.
Fredda Rosen, executive director at Job Path NYC, a nonprofit that creates individualized employment opportunities for the developmentally disabled, appreciates companies creating these programs, but believes that “they are structured in a way that will only work for a small minority of employees because they do not think outside the job description. Overarching programs at large corporations are hard because they have their bureaucracy and HR, which are full of red tape.”
Often times, Rosen said it’s like “trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.”
Trader Joe’s, Starbucks, TJX and Shake Shack are taking neurodiversity one step further by utilizing customized employment opportunities, which do not look to fill a job posting, but instead work with the employees and their mentors to learn the skills, passions and needs of the workers, and craft positions best suited for them.
Job Path, which uses this method with the above-mentioned brands, among others, notes that this method leads to longer employee retention and higher levels of success. Ryan Finger, director of intensive services at Job Path, has seen this firsthand.
“It’s a very creative, individualized process tailored specifically to engage employees with work they will be skilled at and passionate about, and we’ve seen great retention numbers for length of employment.”
Employment challenges in the pandemic
The pandemic has led to a lot of the workforce being sent home, particularly in spaces such as warehouses and restaurants, where high contact is routine. These are the same spaces where disabled workers are often placed, and therefore 85% of the disabled workers at Job Path are currently not working. In recognition of this, some corporations are being diligent about supporting their disabled workers amid the crisis.
Wendy Banner, assistant director of the consortium for customized employment for Job Path, points to CVS and Trader Joe’s as examples.
“The two brands have provided PPE and hand sanitizer for employees who continued to work, and granted leave to those who did not feel safe doing so,” she said.
Approaching inclusion with an innovative mindset will allow brands to continue to hire a neurodiverse workforce. For instance, many companies discovered their employees could continue to work remotely during the pandemic, meaning in the future, disabled people can find job opportunities online, even if they can’t leave the house.
Karen Waltuck, director of the consortium for customized employment at Job Path, believes this time has provided an opportunity for brands to get creative and to recognize the value in doing so, giving her hope that hiring rates will not fall due to the blows of the pandemic.
“We’re not looking for job openings, we’re looking for specific needs,” Waltuck said. “Job openings may be limited, but needs will still be present.”
As stores reopen and workforces are restructured, companies will have the opportunity to craft an inclusive environment for workers of all abilities.
Rosen believes that it begins at the top. Funding must be provided to create opportunities for developmentally disabled workers, and training must be given to managers who will be working with them to ensure that the placements last. Additionally, creating personal relationships with employees before placing them in specific roles is imperative to providing them with a job they will be passionate about, and nonprofit community organizations can provide assistance.
“It’s about being flexible and creative in finding the best roles to allow them to utilize their individual skill sets,” said Waltuck. “Really great managers notice those skills and tailor their roles to help them excel.”
When this happens, brands often find that they benefit from the hire just as much as the employee does. Banner said that since people with developmental disabilities often wait a long time for a role that actually suits them, when they find one, “they deliver a better project with more passion behind it than other employees.”
Many companies have consistently worked to provide neurodiverse employment opportunities that last, including Ikea, CBS, The NBA Store, Restaurant Associates, Walgreens, Barnes & Noble, Whole Foods and Stop & Shop. Instead of implementing corporate programs, they have worked with local organizations to build relationships with employees and place them in roles that they will be passionate about and successful in.
Brands are also focusing on elevating the disabled community through inclusion in marketing efforts. Gucci, Aerie and Target have created marketing campaigns and lines specifically for people with disabilities. Companies not doing their part to provide for people with disabilities are also being called upon to do more.
By working closely within communities and connecting developmentally disabled people with employers, large corporations can not only offer representation for the community in their marketing campaigns, but in their own workplaces too.