While the pandemic has played a key role in every aspect of life for the last 20 months, employment has been one of the most severely impacted elements. In a shifting economy, some workers have thrived, others pivoted, and many found themselves shut out of opportunities entirely.
The complexity of finding or keeping a job in the tumultuous COVID world has brought new challenges to those with developmental disabilities. Access to technology, fears of being infected and companies closing down have created considerable hurdles to stable employment.
Employment Before & During COVID
As October marks National Disability Employment Awareness Month, these issues are in the spotlight. But many of them aren’t new, says Doug Crandell, a nationally recognized expert in the area of employment for individuals with severe mental illness and developmental disabilities. He’s also the director of the Advancing Employment Technical Assistance (TA) Center at the Institute on Human Development and Disability (IHDD) at the University of Georgia (UGA).
“In some ways, we’re kind of in the same place as we were pre-pandemic,” he says. “The unemployment rate for people with disabilities in the U.S. is still pretty high – around 70%. In terms of people who are self-employed, only 2% are people with disabilities versus 30% for the rest of the population. So the hard thing to say here is the pandemic hasn’t made much of a difference.”
But those numbers themselves can be problematic, says Crandell. “Folks with developmental disabilities, brain injuries, physical disabilities and mental health and behavioral issues get left behind in the way we count. And if you don’t know how bad a problem is, it’s hard to fix it.”
Crandell points to several employment barriers that many workers with disabilities still face. Transportation is a major hurdle, particularly in rural areas of the state. Many organizations and companies aren’t incentivized to hire these workers, but many families want real job opportunities, not just day programs, for their youth. “There’s really a lack of opportunity and support, not a lack of desire.”
As the pandemic continues to shift jobs from the real world to the virtual one, those with disabilities face new hurdles that limit their abilities to find or continue employment, Crandell says.
“When we first went into lockdown, a lot of work had to be reconfigured, and I was so surprised that folks with developmental disabilities had no access to a tablet or to the internet,” he says. “It’s still a big divide, especially for people who don’t live with their families. It doesn’t take an economist to figure out why folks in a group home don’t have access to a $1,200 iPad or $100 a month for internet access.”
That limited access doesn’t bode well for the future, when experts predict the virtual work world will remain a viable alternative to in-person, onsite jobs.
“If someone has been largely kept away from technology, then remote work may not fit their skill set because they haven’t had time to develop those skills,” says Crandell. “I regularly meet people who don’t even have an email account. This group could capitalize on home-based or remote work, but we’ve done such a poor job developing those skills they can’t take those opportunities. And especially for youth, we’re seeing the need for a bigger focus on those skills.”
There hasn’t been much progress in Georgia from the 2015 federal Workforce Opportunity and Innovation Act, designed to encourage job training and restrict subminimum wages for young workers. “Is it working? Anecdotally, we don’t think it has been,” Crandell observes.
Changing the Landscape
A number of organizations and initiatives across the state are tackling the problem head-on. UGA’s Advancing Employment TA Center, funded by the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities (GCDD), is one of them. Now in its fourth year, its mission is to provide training and technical assistance to communities in order to remove barriers to employment and to help workers with disabilities find jobs.
GCDD is also spearheading programs across the state to give people with and without disabilities opportunities to contribute to their communities – like Project SEARCH. Of its 18 sites, nine have been recognized for their 100% placement rates.
The program has a nine-year track record of success as a business-led, high school-to-work transition initiative for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Training is done onsite to prepare students to work year-round for at least 16 hours a week in minimum wage or higher jobs that place them in integrated settings alongside coworkers without disabilities.
Those are precisely the sorts of opportunities that contribute substantially to a community’s success, says Crandell. “Every time somebody goes to work where they have a job coach to provide support and help them, it returns over $3,000 per person per year to the community. People with developmental disabilities represent $66 billion in purchasing power.”
The future employment outlook for workers with disabilities has a few positive aspects, Crandell noted, particularly as industries hard-hit by pandemic losses begin to look at this segment of the workforce in a new light. “For instance, the service industries are trying to figure out who can fill the vacancies, and employers are looking at folks they might not have considered in the past,” he says.
Entrepreneurs Take the Stage
The entrepreneurial sector is another slice of the workforce that’s beginning to open for those with disabilities. While it often hinges on those technical skills Crandell says are in need of sharpening, one Georgia program is getting potential business owners up to speed on all aspects of being their own boss.
Synergies Work was founded four years ago by Aarti Sahgal with the goal of finding gainful employment for individuals with disabilities. Motivated by her own son, Angad, who was diagnosed with Down syndrome, Sahgal partnered with companies such as Pfizer and Coca-Cola to offer participants support and training.
“The premise is everybody has a gift to offer to the world, be it head, hand or heart,” says Sahgal. “But when COVID happened, everything came to a standstill. The ones who needed support were being overlooked; they lost jobs and couldn’t go out because of health concerns.”
Sahgal said her program had two options: “Jump in and fail or succeed.” The move to an all-virtual operation turned out to be a game changer.
“I saw a renewed interest in doing things on your own,” she says. “In the last 10 years, the U.S. economy has shifted significantly, with rising self-employment, entrepreneurs and microbusinesses. My oldest son worked for a year with a bank then quit and started his own set up; he had the privilege of making that choice with access to technical knowledge, a network and money. But for folks with disabilities, those options aren’t available. They are more likely to start a business because it offers accessibility and flexibility, but the failure rate for them is higher than average.”
Sahgal created the eight-week i2i Entrepreneurship Program that gives individuals with disabilities with a business idea the chance to establish themselves. The online program provides technical education around social media, managing accounts and bootstrapping a business; guidelines on setting up a business plan and managing accounts; and learning labs, breakout sessions designed to foster strong mentor-mentee relationships. Volunteers also work one-on-one with participants to help them execute their plans and offer support and advice.
“We wanted to provide those resources from business leaders themselves so participants have the opportunity to learn from the best and build a network,” Sahgal says. “When you have a small group discussion with someone interested in solving your problem, it’s a different level of experience.”
Funded by GCDD, the first cohort of 14 i2i graduates completed the program last spring. A second cohort of nine began training this fall. “I see a lot of good synergy within the group,” Sahgal says. “And the people who graduated in the spring are supporting the fall cohort, and they’ll support the next.”
Sahgal also found many would-be entrepreneurs have poor access to the internet and social media, and that led to the creation of microgrants, funded by private and corporate donations, so participants can purchase the tools they needed to get online.
“Last year we used the money to pay their rent,” says Sahgal. “This year, we’re giving out four $500 grants so people can update their technology, build a website, get connected and take good pictures they can put online.”
So far, the i2i grads are putting together gift baskets, selling T-shirts and crocheted items, and working on voiceover skills.
“To be seen as a person who has no talent to being someone who has set up a business is a big step,” says Sahgal. “We hold their hands to get them to believe in themselves. Sometimes, they only believe they can do one thing or that it’s a hobby they can’t make money from. For some reason, we’ve defined boundaries for people with disabilities. But as they slowly gain confidence, we’re seeing some cool things that come from someone believing you can do anything.”
Crandell sees programs such as Synergies Work as important to improving employment opportunities for people with disabilities who want to work.
“I think we’ll have more innovative agencies working with these folks,” he says. “We know there has to be greater education and engagement, and that remote or self-employment are good options. Maybe the pandemic brings to the forefront people living in our communities who can become taxpayers. And that’s the good news.”
Entrepreneurs on The Rise
As a new work order has emerged, growing numbers of people have opted to become their own bosses. After finishing the i2i Entrepreneurship Program through Synergies Work, these three grads are putting their skills to work in their own businesses.
“I’ve been told I have a voice that resonates very well and booms through the house when I’m not in my soundproof studio,” says 22-year-old Cumming resident, Daniel Abadie. But turning that talent into a business seemed like a tall order.
“When I first went to Synergies in the spring, I didn’t have any idea of where to begin,” he says. “They gave me the necessary steps to establish myself.”
Abadie was paired with a mentor who happened to have a relative in the industry, and that relationship opened the door to professional connections. He found support for building a website and a LinkedIn page, and marketing tips to help him sell his skills. He’s now able to work from home in a room he’s outfitted with soundproofing, a microphone and a computer.
For years, Clayton County resident Brandon Cantrell was doing what he calls “philanthropic work,” or as he now describes it, “Not working; I was giving it away.”
Cantrell’s talent is for crocheting marketable items from pot holders and ponchos to scarves, shawls and hats that sell from $14.99 to $74.99. He learned the art from his grandmother when he was a child, but he signed up for the i2i program to learn about selling his creations online.
Today, the Crochet by Brandon website highlights his creations. And with a recent Synergies Work grant, he’s buying a new iPhone that will take better photos.
“They helped me find my purpose,” says the 37-year-old. “I found platforms to sell my products and had one under the Synergies Work umbrella. Without them, I would still be giving my stuff away.”
Mountain Park resident Noah Seback learned about the i2i program from a friend who knew the 22-year-old wanted to start a business. “I just didn’t have the knowhow,” he admits.
Seback also knew his idea was a bit unusual. “My passion is to connect with other non-speaking autistics who share the same struggles, and my idea was to offer a service in which I could partner with them as a peer mentor,” he writes.
Through the spring and summer, Seback worked on designing a small business.
“I realized it was doable, even for someone like me with no business savvy. What I saw as an intimidating process was just like any other process: It could be implemented given the right know how, guidance, support and encouragement.
Today, through his qUirk company, Seback offers peer support and mentoring to nonspeaking autistics and their family members. “I offer a neurodiverse and lived-experience perspective for non-speakers who want to go beyond just surviving to thriving.”
Project SEARCH a business-led, high school-to-work transition program, serving students with significant intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD). It takes place entirely at the workplace and the goal for each student participant is competitive employment. To learn more, visit projectsearch.us
i2i Entrepreneurship Program
The Synergies Work Idea to Incubation (i2i) Business Incubator offers mentorship, access to resources, and an ongoing support structure designed specifically for entrepreneurs with disabilities. i2i’s mission is to empower people with disabilities to become financially independent and build their own futures. To learn more, visit synergieswork.org/i2i