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Hiring Workers With Disabilities Could Alleviate Shortage

In 2019, the New York State Industries for the Disabled helped employ 5,293 workers with a disability. Yet, the state ranked 43rd out of the 50 states for residents with a disability who were employed.

two workers sitting at a desk, one in a wheelchair
(TNS) — Disabled workers seek opportunity to shine in jobs

As employers struggle to fill job openings, they might look to workers like Amy Espinosa.

Espinosa works on a cleaning crew through the Arc Erie County New York. She was part of a team keeping the Broadway Market looking tidy during the busy Easter season, and is now working at Buffalo City Court.

"I am proud to be the person that makes sure other people's workspace is clean and sanitized so they can work in a healthy environment and be productive," she said.

With her job, Espinosa is able to live in her own apartment and enjoy an active personal life.

"I always hope to be a good mentor to new co-workers," she said.

The ARC Erie County supports people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Douglas DiGesare, the organization's CEO, said the organization has many capable people like Espinosa with a proven track record at area employers.

"Our workforce is very trainable, very committed to their work," DiGesare said. "They're very responsible and they're reliable."

A prime example, DiGesare said, was how the cleaning crew performed at the Broadway Market around Easter. They ramped up their hours at the time of the year when the market draws its biggest crowds.

"The team here was remarkable," he said. "They didn't quit. They just kept coming to work and they were busy."

The Role of Job Coaches

DiGesare said people who work at local employers through ARC Erie County get help from job coaches when they are learning new tasks at a workplace. Those coaches step back once workers get settled in, but can return if employees are shifted into a new or different task that requires some additional guidance.

ARC Erie County has provided 15 people to work at Mod-Pac, a Buffalo printing company, as well as workers for Harmac Medical Products. Others work as part of landscaping and janitorial crews.

"Depending on the person and the abilities they have, there really wouldn't be a limit to what you can have them do," DiGesare said.

Employers are becoming more open to the idea of hiring people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, he said.

"We don't have that problem with people showing up for work," he added.

A recent report published by the Rockefeller Institute of Government highlighted the role of disability service providers in the state's economy. In 2019, the New York State Industries for the Disabled, or NYSID, oversaw a $250 million contract portfolio that employed 5,293 workers with a disability, who received $71.4 million in wages.

New York Lags Behind

But disability advocates say New York falls short in the area of disability employment. In 2019, only 35 percent of New York state residents with a disability were employed, ranking 43rd out of 50 states. By comparison, the employment rate for people without a disability from ages 18 to 64 was nearly 79 percent.

Maureen O'Brien, NYSID's president and CEO, said people with disabilities "cannot and should not be an afterthought. Any diversity, equity and inclusion platform must prioritize individuals with disabilities."

Almost all of NYSID's business used to be government work, but O'Brien saw greater potential: "We looked at what we were really good at, and we went out to the private sector and said, 'Outsource that work to us.' "

NYSID has been successful at converting work such as janitorial duties at private hospitals and document imaging and digitization of medical records, she said.

Changing the Work Environment

NYSID finds the employees it provides "change the nature of the environment at work," O'Brien said.

"They integrate well with other members of the workforce," she said. "There's an enthusiasm. If you're a person who's had a barrier to employment, once you have employment, you're a much happier person on the job than someone who hasn't had that struggle."

At NYSID'S offices in Albany, O'Brien hired a young man with autism who had faced barriers to employment.

"He's in a section of the office where we needed a little bit of a pick-me-up, and he did it within days," she said. "People saw how happy he was to be there. He's a fantastic addition to our staff."

O'Brien said people with disabilities see things differently, just by overcoming obstacles to get to work. She gave the example of someone who uses a wheelchair, getting out the door in wintertime and navigating snowbanks to reach public transportation.

"They are fantastic problem-solvers," she said. "You take your everyday life skills that have made you incredible problem-solvers and you take them into the workplace."

Espinosa reflected on winning an employee of the year award through the Arc Erie County and NYSID. Her career has progressed through assignments at different locations since she started four years ago and impressed her supervisors.

"I felt like I was recognized for the quality of my work, but quickly found out that I was also awarded for my outlook and determination," Espinosa said.

(c)2022 The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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