February is Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month, launched by Jewish organizations in 2009 to raise awareness and foster inclusion of people with disabilities and their loved ones.
Since then, the public’s awareness has indeed grown. The fields of education and health care have advanced. For the most part, children with developmental or intellectual disabilities are no longer lumped together as having “special needs,” segregated into separate classrooms — or worse, penalized with bad grades or harshly disciplined as a result of their differences. Instead, greater vigilance has resulted in more specialized diagnoses which, in turn, have created more personalized and effective educational and therapeutic responses.
This increased awareness and vigilance have also produced an unprecedented spike in diagnoses. Recent U.S. estimates show that about one in six children between the ages of 3 and 17 — some 15 percent — display one or more developmental disabilities that create physical, learning, language, or behavioral challenges. Yet, as a result in this increase in diagnosis, more kids — and, ultimately, adults — are being categorized as developmentally or intellectually disabled. Unfortunately, such labels may prematurely and unnecessarily consign many people to a lifetime of joblessness.
That’s because despite our overall progress when it comes to engaging people with developmental disabilities, few businesses recognize these individuals’ values in the workplace. In fact, according to the advocacy organization The Arc, recent U.S. labor statistics show that the majority of adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities are either unemployed or underemployed, despite their ability and desire to work.
All the more reason society — and employers, in particular — must begin to look beyond a person’s disabilities and appreciate their abilities. Research shows that people who may be limited in one capacity can develop unique abilities that sometimes more than compensate. For instance, some adults diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a classification of developmental disorders that includes both Asperger’s syndrome and autism, can have a high tolerance for repetitive tasks, an acute attention to detail, stronger than average perceptual skills, and a good memory. This can make them excellent candidates for jobs related to quality control, packaging and assembly, and data processing and analytics, as well as information technology, cyber-security, and robotics.
At Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) of MetroWest in East Orange, we see the promise in everyone, regardless of the challenges they may face. Our expertise in providing assistance to adults with disabilities — including ASD — enables us to meet each of our program participants where they are, help them identify their strengths and abilities, and provide them with the tools and training necessary to help them secure and maintain gainful employment.
We also work with area employers to help them better understand and create a work environment which ensures that employees with intellectual and developmental disabilities can be successful over the short- and long-term.
Recently, global corporations such as Microsoft, Ernst & Young, Walgreens, and AMC Theatres have begun to recognize that those with developmental disabilities can provide valuable skills the marketplace needs. Locally, JVS has placed program participants at more than two-dozen area businesses, including supermarkets, clothing stores, retail outlets, tech firms, early childhood programs, restaurants, and more. These firms are not only fulfilling their corporate social responsibility by doing the right thing, they are realizing a positive return on their investments. In short, employing people with developmental disabilities is not just good for the employees — it’s good for business.
In addition, high-profile people such as Dan Aykroyd, Anderson Cooper, Albert Einstein, Daryl Hannah, Charles Schwab, and Henry Winkler (among dozens of others) have either been diagnosed with — or are believed to have experienced — developmental disabilities and/or learning differences; public figures are increasingly discussing their challenges. They underscore that people with an array of disabilities can achieve and contribute to our society to the fullest.
Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month was established to shed light on a population that is typically viewed in terms of what they can’t do, rather than what they can. But one month alone each year is not enough to adequately celebrate the unique talents and skills individuals diagnosed with physical, social, intellectual, and/or developmental disabilities bring to our communities and why we, as communities, educators, and employers, need to do much, much more.
We need to begin to see those among us who would otherwise be consigned to the margins of our communities for what they can do — and invite them to share our workplaces and work alongside us.
Michael Andreas is executive director of Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) of MetroWest NJ.