Opinion

It’s easier than we think

Remember when you applied for your first job? Many of us had the experience of filling out an application and shakily handing it to the manager of a business, hoping to get called for an interview. And then after getting a job, going through the equally anxiety-inducing process of learning a slew of new tasks and trying to meet the expectations of a complete stranger!

Imagine what it’s like for adults with developmental conditions like Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy and autism—who may have all the necessary skills for employment, but are often overlooked because employers have preconceived notions about their on-the-job needs and limitations. What I’ve witnessed, however, is that building an inclusive workplace is easier than we think…

Take Harvey, for example. He works at a health club where he wipes down the machines and keeps the facility looking sharp. To make sure he doesn’t forget any of his tasks, Harvey keeps a visual chart of all the machines in the club and crosses out the pictures as he cleans. This is a common accommodation that’s very effective. Not only does it help Harvey ensure that he doesn’t miss anything—but since his verbal skills are limited, it also enables him to respond if his manager has a question about whether something was completed. And if members ask a question that Harvey can’t answer, he carries a written sign he can use to refer them to the front desk for assistance. So he is always able to communicate and show good customer service.

I’ve visited Harvey at work, and during my tour, I attempted to extend my appreciation to the business owner. He flatly refused me! Instead of thanking him for offering Harvey this fantastic opportunity, I wound up accepting his gratitude. Harvey has contributed so much to the business—the customers love him, the staff members respect him and his work is outstanding—that the owner insisted he is the thankful one.

Another person who benefited from a simple adjustment is Kari. She just started a new job where she takes care of dogs at a pet daycare, and her employer came up with the idea of reworking the standard orientation to ensure her success. Instead of walking through all of Kari’s tasks at once, the manager suggested training her on one at a time—so Kari fully masters each task and then moves on to learn another one. This way, Kari is more likely to retain the knowledge and feel confident as she approaches her tasks. I particularly love the idea for Kari’s training, because it was initiated by a perceptive employer who was willing to think outside the box.

Some people with developmental conditions have challenges with dexterity. So Debbie, who strings beads into bracelets for sale, uses an extra-firm string and beads with larger holes. And Kim, who cleans and touches up the paint on donation bins, makes sure everything she uses has a rubber grip that she can hold easily. In fact, Kim even went to the store and “test drove” specific products, so she could choose the ones that were the most comfortable for her. This was easy enough to do, and made Kim feel confident in the products she uses every day.

I’m impressed that all of these accommodations were easy, free and effective. In the case of Harvey and Kari, it was a matter of pausing to re-think the traditional way of doing things. For Debbie and Kim, it was about taking their input and needs into consideration when purchasing the physical materials for their jobs. In all of these cases, the end results are employees who are doing fulfilling work—and employers who are reaping the economical and social rewards of an inclusive workplace.

Tom Everill is the President & CEO of Northwest Center, and collaborates with staff member Alice Thavis on monthly columns for this publication. Contact them at inside@nwcenter.org if there are topics related to people with disabilities that would interest you.

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