Individuals with disabilities: a benefit to the workplace and workforce

By Chris Cotillo

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – If you happen to stop by the Joe Van Gogh coffee shop at the Timberlyne Shopping Center, the employee who may make the biggest impact on you will do it without saying a single word.

Owen Davis, a 23-year-old with non-verbal autism, has worked at the shop for about a year. He washes dishes, cleans tables and sometimes makes coffee or serves customers.

Working at Joe Van Gogh is one of Davis’ two jobs, with the other being a custodial position at Reality Ministries, a non-denominational Christian gathering space for young adults with intellectual disabilities in Durham. He works at least one of those jobs (and sometimes both) five days a week, establishing a routine that his mother, Patty Davis, says has been extremely beneficial.

“He has a routine, and it keeps him busy,” Davis said. “And I’ll tell you what, the work ethic on these young adults with disabilities… I would say 95 percent of them never miss a day of work.”

Owen’s job is an example of a growing trend in which businesses are becoming more likely to hire individuals with developmental disabilities. People closely involved with the special needs community, like students with UNC’s Best Buddies initiative, are working hard to raise awareness about the benefits of a diverse workplace, attempting to end the prevailing stigma about hiring employees with disabilities.

“I think people hear ‘disability’ and quite literally, the word means, the inability to do something,” said Caroline Folz, a UNC senior on the executive board for Best Buddies. “That’s not true at all. It’s just that individuals have different needs, difficulties and strengths.

“There’s the idea that individuals who have disabilities are worse employees and maybe wouldn’t be worth the investment of an employer, but honestly, that isn’t the case. Having individuals who have disabilities in the workplace actually has a ton of positive effects on the work environment,” Folz said.

Benefits of workplace involvement

For individuals with developmental disabilities, the benefits of having a job extend beyond receiving paychecks. Owen doesn’t make much money, but his mom says he likes having just enough to take his grandmother to lunch.

“That’s not what it’s about,” Davis said. “It’s about having self-worth. It’s just having money that you don’t have to ask for all the time.”

In addition, the social impact of employment for individuals with developmental disabilities is unmatched by other opportunities. Unlike schooling, which is largely segmented, being a part of the workforce gives these individuals a chance to make friends that have rarely existed in other aspects of their lives.

At Joe Van Gogh, the employees view Owen as a friend, taking him to the zoo, movies and other excursions throughout the last year. Although he is non-verbal, he’s able to communicate via sign language and writing, which his mom said isn’t a barrier once people get to know him.

“There’s no place that these kids get to meet people,” Davis said. “[Owen] wants so badly to find a girlfriend. I asked him today, what’s your favorite thing about your job? What’s the most important thing? And he said it was just seeing all the beautiful girls.”

Scott Lambeth, a clerk in the UNC mail room, is in his 19th year at his current job. The Chapel Hill native is a self-described hardcore Special Olympian. He competes in basketball, kickball, track, swimming, soccer and flag football. Lambeth says his job keeps him moving, even when he’s not practicing for sports or at one of his beloved Zumba classes.

“That’s a big reason why I don’t look my age,” Lambeth said. “No one would ever guess I’m 41. I have so much energy. I’m moving like I’m a planet.”

“It’s really important for the supervisor, or whoever the boss is, to be patient with whoever they’re working with,” Lambeth said. “People have different disabilities, as opposed to others.”

Performance, retention and perception

Research has shown that individuals with developmental disabilities aren’t the only ones who benefit from being in the workforce. Businesses that hire from this specific pool of applicants benefit in three specific areas – performance, retention and perception – according to UNC senior Cait Rosica, who is completing an independent study on neurodiversity in businesses.

According to Rosica’s research, employees with autism perform better at data-driven tasks and problem-solving than those who don’t have intellectual disabilities, largely due to their strong attention to detail. In terms of retention, the difference in average turnover rate is stark, with the average turnover rate for people with intellectual disabilities equaling just 7 percent in comparison to the national average of 49 percent.

The lack of turnover means businesses add stability and save money, as the cost of replacing employees can vary from $3,000 to $8,000. In addition, businesses benefit greatly from hiring those with developmental disabilities in terms of perception, with a staggering 92 percent of people surveyed stating that they “regard companies who employ people with disabilities more favorably than their competitors,” according to the “Return on Disability Group” report from May 2016.

Rosica said her passion for helping people with intellectual disabilities and the business world has made her see the gap between the services that people receive in the education system and getting to the actual job world.

“I think it’s beneficial for both sides,” Rosica said. “Many companies are taking advantage of the talent pool, but for others, I think the link is still missing. That’s what I’m trying to address some of it with my project.”

Demonstrating their ability

Locally, there are plenty of programs designed to help individuals with developmental disabilities enter the workforce. Project SEARCH, a national program that helps individuals transition out of high school with interview training, life skills and a job coach, was instrumental in Owen landing his two jobs. UNC has a similar program, called PATHSS (Project Achieve for Transitioning High School Students).

To create the link between individuals with intellectual disabilities and potential employers, organizations like Best Buddies are attempting to be more active. Folz, who serves as the Community Buddy Coordinator on campus, said that the organization is hosting a LinkedIn-themed art showcase at the Student Union on March 2 aimed at highlighting the individual accomplishments and interests of those associated with the program.

“We’ll highlight their hobbies, their interests and the work they do around Chapel Hill,” Folz said. “We want to show the professional side, but also the extracurricular side of what our buddies like to do.”

“The purpose is to showcase the important role that individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities play in our community,” Folz said, “and also to give our members a way to be recognized for all the work that they do.”

Edited by Megan Cain