Saturday, October 8, 2011

Helping Special Needs People Find a Job

I'll be keynoting a conference for people whose job is to find jobs for people with special needs. I thought you might like to see the essence of what I'm going to say.

If I had a teen or adult child with special needs--for example, mild cognitive impairment and wheelchair-bound--I'd certainly want them to work. And here's what I'd to do to help them become employed:

I'd convey to him (or her, of course) that work is a must, not an option, and that work is wonderful: It keeps you stimulated, makes you money, and importantly, makes you a productive, contributing member of society. I'd also often tell my child how proud I'll be when he gets a job and especially when he does a good job at it.

I would try to identify community resources that help special needs people find employment, for example, Stepping Stones, but if I felt those wouldn't do a great job for my child, I'd take matters into my own hands:

I'd help my child identify jobs he might do well and reasonably enjoy. Examples of jobs that some special needs people can do: clerk, custodian, basic repair, load trucks, or other manual labor, supermarket stockperson or carry-out assistant. People with normal intelligence but with a learning disability, even with an accompanying physical disability, depending on their abilities and limitations, may succeed as, for example, a receptionist, graphic artist, or bookkeeper.

I'd demonstrate to my child how to interview: how to walk in, say hello, describe who you are and what you can and can't do, answer typical questions, and ask for a job. After each demo, I'd have my child try it. I'd give feedback as encouragingly as possible. After he was doing pretty well, I'd video it and use that to provide additional feedback.

I'd buy my child a new interview outfit: the clothes he'll feel most confident wearing that also would be appropriate for an interview.

I'd have him write a resume with my help. I'd be sure that both his abilities and limitations are fairly described.

I'd call everyone I knew telling them I'm trying to help my special-needs child find a decent job, one with a kind boss. I'd fully describe my child's abilities and limitations. I disagree with the conventional wisdom, which is to hide from employers the disability as long as possible. Rather, I agree with the axiom on damage control: Get the bad news out up-front. Yes, many potential employers will be turned off but the right employers, the ones likely to hire my child and be kind to him when the inevitable mess-ups occur, will not be unduly deterred. Apart from the poor ethics of deferring revealing the disabilities, when they're finally revealed in the interview, the employer will feel deceived that they weren't disclosed up-front.

If my network didn't generate a good job with a kind employer, I'd make a list of target places of employment. Schools, colleges, nonprofits, libraries, businesses serving the disabled, senior centers, animal shelters, and bookstores may, on average, be kinder to a special-needs job applicant than would private-sector employers. Once I assembled my list, on a map, I'd put an X on the location of each employer and would drive my child around to them.

I'd walk my child into each of those places of employment and to any other good prospects I noticed along the way. I know that conventional wisdom is that the job applicant should go in alone but I believe that whatever negative effect would accrue from my walking in would be outweighed by my enthusiasm and by my answering questions on behalf of my child. Also, it would be harder for an employer to turn down an impassioned parent than a special needs job applicant.

If appropriate, I'd tell the employer I'd be willing to be my child's job coach: help train him for the job, before or after he was hired, at home, or even on the job to ensure he was doing a good job.

After the inevitable rejections that all job seekers suffer, I'd explain to my child that job seeking is a game where you only need succeed once--you can get rejected lots and lots of times and still win. Where possible, I would be a cheerleader for my child but, where necessary, a loving taskmaster.

When he gets hired, I'd call the employer after the first few hours to ask how things are going and if there's anything I could do to help ensure my child's success.

All things equal, I'd prefer my special-needs child to be employed by someone else rather than to be self-employed. I want him out in the world, experiencing other people, other things. Too many people with special needs have too-small worlds. They often don't realize how much richer a life in the world can be, even if they find it challenging.

That said, if my child could not find a job, even in a sheltered workshop (Today, often obfuscatingly called "work center,") where he could succeed, that was reasonably pleasant, and with boss and coworkers that treated him with reasonable respect, I would work with my child to create a home-based business. Depending on his abilities, limitations, and preferences, my child might make homemade crafts, jewelry, or soap (sold to the disabled community?), package and ship items for eBay sellers, or even tutor children with disabilities.

No matter what, I would often tell my child how much I love him and how proud I am of his efforts to land and succeed in a job. Even if his job was just to sweep the floor, wash dishes, clean toilets, or dig ditches, I would indeed be proud. All ethical work is of real value. A side benefit to society: It can be inspiring for coworkers to see a disabled person doing a good job--"If they can, then certainly I should."

Indeed, I find someone who does a lowly job reliably to be among the most worthy of respect: Despite the lack of pay and prestige, the person's sense of responsibility motivates him to do a good job. I can't think of an action more worthy of respect, indeed of love.


Robert said...

A very moving article indeed. Thank you Dr. Nemko.

Anonymous said...

Off topic.. but what do you think of Occupy Wall Street? I get a strong student debt vibe from the protesters. It seems like the BA is a "required" by employers as a screening device for employers to filter out the non hard workers and non capable. But it costs tens of thousands of dollars and takes at least four years out of a person's life.

Marty Nemko said...


Much as I believe that higher education is America's most overrated product, I do not agree with your contention.

However, your comment has triggered a chain of thoughts that is leading me to write a blog post arguing that "The Revolution" indeed is coming and that we will, not much later, come to rue it.

Anonymous said...

Back to the topic at hand, I hope you don't use this sentence in your talk, or again:

"People with normal intelligence but with a learning or physical disability, depending on their abilities and limitations, may succeed as, for example, a receptionist, graphic artist, or bookkeeper."

Your article is focused on things you would do around people with cognitive impairments.

That sentence reiterates a ghastly tendency that folks with limited mobility often run into: a prejudice to assume that their visible difference implies a reduced intelligence or ability.

Marty Nemko said...

Most Recent Anonymous,

Well, you certainly do read blog posts with a very detailed eye.

Yes, on rereading, "learning or physical disability", should read "learning disability even if there's an associated physical disability." I've now made that change.

Shawn said...

This is a good post. I like it because a lot of employment counselors ignore special needs people since they cannot afford to be clients, or, sometimes they are not able to use a computer.

Marty, I agree and disagree that higher education is "America's most overrated product." The reason why it is overrated is because it is used as a proxy for IQ tests because IQ tests lead to disparate impact law suits.

The ruling in Griggs v. Duke Power Co. needs to be overturned so simple IQ tests can be used instead of students being forced to jump through years of education that they may not really be interested in. As it is right now, however, a college education is a good idea for even very intellectually modest individuals. See this post:


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