Sustainable Business Models Create Opportunities for Businesses and Employees with Developmental Disabilities

Featuring Jennifer White

When people think of a person with a disability, often they do not think that person is able to work or employable. One woman is using her passion and talents to help people with disabilities excel in the workplace.

Jennifer White’s career in helping people with disabilities prepare for the workforce began when she was a teenager. Through her father’s work as a psychiatrist, she grew up surrounded by people with disabilities. She witnessed their gifts and their struggles, often with communication. In this environment, White learned how to communicate and help individuals express themselves through trial and error with different techniques and devices. She describes herself as “an inventor out of the gate” and combined her love of inventing and her belief that all people deserve the right to be heard and participate in their communities to found her company Able Opportunities, Inc. located in Hansville, Washington.

Able Opportunities, Inc. is an organization that believes in providing equal opportunity, economic power, independent living, and inclusive communities for people with disabilities. They offer many services, including supported employment and job placement, transition services from school-to-work after graduation, consulting, business partnerships, and more. They also offer trainings, innovative accommodations, and resources for employers, people with developmental disabilities, and their families.

“I focus on person-driven accommodation tools made by the individual,” said White. Person-driven accommodation tools and supports are tools that are co-created and customized by employment specialists and the person with disabilities who will be using it for their job.

These person-driven supports are an integral part of her approach to employment customization. Her company created the Work Autonomy app. This app allows employers and people with developmental disabilities to program and track concrete information about job tasks. The app’s three primary functions—messages, schedules, and production—are completely customizable for its users.

Often in supported employment, people with disabilities work their job with a one-on-one job coach throughout their entire shift or part of their shift, but many people with disabilities in the workforce don’t want to be dependent on a job coach. With technology, they don’t have to. “We taught a person with a developmental disability how to use this app. This was someone who was previously deemed to be ‘unemployable.’ This was his first job out of high school, and he said, ‘I like using the Work Autonomy app because I can do my job and the job coach goes away!’ Now he trains new coaches how to use the app. Accommodation changes the world for people with disabilities” said White, “not just in their lives, but how people see them and their capacity to work.”

White is determined to demonstrate that there are cost-effective opportunities for employers to hire people with developmental disabilities that will benefit their businesses financially. The more supported employment becomes a system and focuses on the business value of employing people with disabilities, the more success will be seen in this field.

She described the success of one business partnership saying, “It’s not just a ‘feel good story,’ it’s a sustainable model opening up better job opportunities for people with developmental disabilities,” said White. “Every organization I know is struggling with hiring people right now. To me, this is the perfect time to be talking to employers about business model structures that are sustainable. There is a massive pool of people who want to work, and who want to stay in a job where they are successful and valued. Those are people with developmental disabilities.”

“The math breaks the myth,” explains White. Evidence shows that the benefits outweigh the costs when employing people with disabilities. “At one company, we pitched the first wage for employees at $10/hour when the minimum wage was $7.25 and got the higher rate because the business model makes sense.”

White recognizes the origins of why employers assume that hiring people with developmental disabilities isn’t sustainable, isn’t cost-effective, or takes too much of their time.

“Historically, the community that is focused on employing people with developmental disabilities has been looking at this as a social work challenge, when really it’s a business problem that needs to be presented as a business solution,” she explains. White also identified iPads as an effective person-driven accommodation tool because they are accessible for people who process information differently. On her website, she provides a justification letter to submit to insurance companies or Medicaid to purchase the iPad and gives free step-by-step instructions on how to make “Silly Movies” on iPads. The lessons to make “Silly Movies” use built-in apps like Photo Booth and iMovie to train users on every way they can touch the iPad for all other apps.

These movies also allow the user to interact with the devices outside of work and give them opportunities to create and express themselves.

Whether low-tech or high-tech, White encourages employers and families to explore employment possibilities that incorporate custom accommodations created by and for people with developmental disabilities. With these tools in place, businesses benefit and bring life-changing employment opportunities to people with developmental disabilities.