Business

Why employers need to consider the possibilities in differently-abled adults

Aaron at his desk at Local Profile of Collin County. Photography by Cori Baker.

Dressed in a suit and tie, Aaron strides into the Local Profile offices with purpose. “No one has ever given me an opportunity like this before,” he says with a bright smile as we shake hands. Aaron is an intern at Local Profile.

As one of 250,000 people in North Texas who have an intellectual and/or developmental disability (IDD), Aaron is one of the eight percent who are employed in the community.

Before coming to work at Local Profile, Aaron held a number of jobs. He was excited to work at a veterinarian’s office because he loves animals. The reality was disappointing; he was not permitted to interact with any animals or their owners. His job was to clean up after them. Food service for a catering company was more promising, but the work was sporadic and unreliable.

At 36 years old, Aaron wants what everyone wants: an opportunity to live independently and provide for himself. But for adults like Aaron, opportunity does not come knocking.

But opportunity is knocking and it’s knocking on the door of organizations who have yet to realize the potential in differently-abled adults.

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According to Marc Woods, senior vice president of Support Services, Bank of America, hiring adults with IDD can positively impact the bottom line in a big way.

“Support Services is not a charity organization; we are a cost-saving department. We save the bank millions and millions and millions every single year,” Marc says.

The Support Services division is a fully integrated team of 300 back office workers. They have locations in Texas, Delaware and Maine. Of the 78 people who work at their Dallas location, 84 percent have a disability.

The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a person with a disability as “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.”    

In the case of a person with IDD, such as someone who has autism, these limitations are not physical; they simply think differently. They work differently. As do we all. There are no two people who work exactly alike, in fact, there are few people who even fulfill the exact same role as someone else. For example, if you’re a cashier, your job description may be to ring up items and take payment for them. Perhaps this is something you do slowly with meticulous attention to detail, or perhaps you are quick with your own shortcuts, or, maybe you are friendly and take time to laugh and chat with customers. Also, depending on your ability and attitude, you may be assigned additional small tasks such as stocking shelves, managing shopping carts, or even leading other team members. Whatever it is, even if the tasks you perform are rote, the way you perform them is 100 percent unique to you.

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At Support Services they have designed an entire division to match the unique skill set of individuals with IDD. Note the division’s mission: “To provide Bank of America businesses with the product or service they need, while providing meaningful employment to people with disabilities.” Providing a product or service is their lead purpose, that fact that they also provide meaningful employment to people with disabilities is a happy byproduct. “Support Services brings diversity and inclusion to the table in spades!” Marc laughs.   

Support Services simply improves efficiency. Letter fulfillment, quality assurance checks and indexing, are three jobs done at Support Services in Dallas. “When you send a document to the bank, the bank receives and scans it. It is quality-checked and put in the right place in the cloud so that frontline personnel can retrieve it at a later time,” Marc explains. The receiving, scanning and checking is done by the Support Services team, cumulatively saving a lot of time for frontline personnel who can focus on their primary function. There are no redundancies—or hours wasted at the copier machine.

With Aaron, and later Melissa, our other intern who identifies as a high-functioning autistic, I get the opportunity to see how this process works. Working with My Possibilities and the new LaunchAbility Career Services program, the process begins with a job analysis at our office. Anita Bagnall, who has worked for My Possibilities as an employment consultant for five years, bounces into our office to find, and unearth, our deepest, darkest inefficiencies: tasks that take up a lot of time, that nobody likes doing, but are absolutely necessary.

With that list in hand, we create an Office Support position “to assist departments with daily needs and to foster a welcoming environment for employees, clients and vendors.” Tasks include: restocking supplies such as water and magazines; copying and refilling marketing materials; managing office supplies; and greeting guests (and employees) as they enter the office throughout the day. A Media Assistant position is also created to repost stories published in the print magazine to the website.

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When I first meet Melissa, I’m stunned by her poetic manner of speaking. “I like to read; I chew up books, spit them out and read them again,” she says when I ask about hobbies. Then, when I discover she loves to write, she admits, “My writing has been kind of stagnant, but I will deliver.” As a result, we combine the Office Support role with the Media Assistant responsibilities and assign a number of web stories to Melissa.    

Melissa at her desk at Local Profile of Collin County

In preparation, and to support Melissa and Aaron in their roles, a document is created that lays out their tasks with instructions listed in a clear step-by-step format. Aside from writing, the tasks both Melissa and Aaron perform are repetitive and routine; they follow the steps and only seek supervision when a situation falls outside of the norm. Both Aaron and Melissa thrive, knowing exactly what is expected of them and happy to do the same tasks over and over again. It’s the exact method and procedure implemented at Support Services.

“All of our tasks are checklist orientated, whether it’s a one-step process or 30 steps. All the tasks are repetitive; there is no guesswork. If a situation pops up that is outside of protocol, our employees know to escalate it to a manager,” Marc explains.

This system works because it focuses on the unique abilities of adults with IDD, not their limitations.

“People with IDD have the ability to focus longer and do a repetitive job; doing it over and over again. There are a variety of things we do that a traditional entry-level employee is not willing to take on. Our team gladly takes them on and they do it ten times better than other departments can,” Marc says.

Karen Wald, senior vice president and chief of staff at Alliance Data, headquartered in Plano, had a similar experience with one of four of the company’s LaunchAbility clients. “His role involves working with purchase orders, statements of work and matching invoices. These tasks are somewhat tedious and require someone who is able to stay super focused. Previously, this role was a revolving door; people got bored of the repetitive nature of the work, and when you get bored, you get complacent and mistakes happen. Berney has been in this role for eight years. He’s diligent, his work is accurate and he completes tasks in a timely manner.”

Having an adult with IDD perform these tasks saves a company money in two key ways. Firstly, the job gets done, quickly, efficiently, with unparalleled accuracy and attention to detail and, with a smile.

“They are excited about work, they feel good about work, and they want to come to work every day,” Karen says. “In that respect there is a cost saving. An unengaged employee may have an error rate of 20 percent, or perhaps they are frequently absent and we have to supplement their work with an additional person.”

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Secondly, turnover drops dramatically. When you have someone in a job that they love they want to stay. The attrition rate at Support Services is almost zero, meaning most employees work there until retirement. “Our retention rate is over 98 percent: that’s employees and managers. When people come here they find a job they are passionate about and they don’t want to leave,” Marc says.

In addition, programs that put adults with IDD into the workplace actually save the community money. “It is good for business, but it’s also good for the economy,” Karen says. “Each person placed in a full-time job through supported programs [such as My Possibilities] saves taxpayers approximately $47,000 a year in reduced need for social services and increased ability of the individual to pay taxes.”

It’s important to note, however, that these savings to not come from low wages or lack of benefits. “We do not differentiate pay for these team members,” Karen explains. “They are paid a competitive wage, and if they are full-time they receive all benefits; they are treated exactly the same as all other Alliance Data associates.”

Finally, employing adults with IDD is a great way to give back and to build a healthy, happy work environment. “Investing in these programs is the right thing to do,” Karen says. “But, it’s also an opportunity to shift your culture into one that’s highly inclusive and diversified. The culture in our company is greatly enhanced. Within the team, you see such an acceptance and appreciation of someone who does their job really well.”

Inside the Tech Lab at My Possibilities Campus for Higher Learning, Plano. Hipster. hipsters
Inside the Tech Lab at My Possibilities Campus for Higher Learning, Plano.

Just south of the President George Bush Turnpike in Plano, a new building shimmers in the Texas sun. Inside, extra-wide corridors are color-coded and classrooms are labelled with symbols and equipped with specially designed chairs and big windows that flood the rooms with natural light. Here, 400 students from across the Dallas – Fort Worth metroplex develop the skills they need to succeed in life, and in the workforce. My Possibilities Campus for Higher Learning is the first and only college-style campus for adults with IDD in the entire United States. At My Possibilities, adults with IDD are being given an opportunity to learn and businesses are being given the opportunity to grow and diversify their team in ways they never thought possible.

One day, Aaron stays late, long after everyone else has already left. When I finish my work, we bump into each other in the office kitchen and share a laugh over a mini-can of Dr Pepper. I ask Aaron to help me lock up and as we leave the office and stroll out into the night, Aaron pauses, looks me straight in the eyes and says, “I love you. This opportunity has changed my life.”

Aaron, intern at Local Profile of Collin County
Rebecca Silvestri
Executive Editor
Rebecca Silvestri is the executive editor at Local Profile. She is also the wife of Philip Silvestri, Publisher of Local Profile.

In a previous life, Rebecca was a math teacher (in London and the Dominican Republic).

Philip and Rebecca have a little boy named Theo and a baby girl named Luna Rose.

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