What To Do With The Unemployable?

With all the news about the fast food restaurants and supermarkets desperately searching for workers, you would think that there are plenty of jobs for everyone. Sure, those jobs might be low paying and boring, but they exist. If someone really, really needs a job, they can always push shopping carts, right? Sad to say that’s not the case. Less than 20 percent of people with disabilities have paid employment.

In the autism community, employment rates are particularly terrible. Even among college grads, 85 percent of young adults with autism are unemployed. Those with more complicated autism have more serious struggles. Moms are forced to start their own companies in order to keep their autistic adult children busy during the day.

Theoretically, Ian could be an awesome checkout worker at the local supermarket. He would remember all those codes for broccoli and asparagus with no problems. He would show up on time, manage the machine, and work consistently. But he would have trouble getting through the interview, because his eye contact is sketchy. If he got past the interview, he could handle the average customer just fine. The problems would happen when someone had him scan and package up ten bags of groceries only to discover that they forgot their wallet, or their credit cards were maxed out, or they were simply drunk and confused. Ian would not know how to handle those random, real-life situations. He might yell at the customer and tell them that they were totally stupid.

Specialized programs help people, like Ian, learn how to handle the social situations. With the help of a job coach whispering in his ear, Ian would learn how to deal with the customer without credit cards and the thousands of other random situations that happen in any job. By learning how to deal with those social situations in a supermarket, those lessons should carry over to other jobs and work situations. If he learns that he should not correct the grammar of his boss in supermarket, hopefully he’ll learn to not correct his professor’s grammar. Ian’s problems can be solved with the right programs.

Other people have physical, cognitive, or emotional challenges that can’t be tweaked with a temporary job coach. They need specialized work places, like a hydroponic farm that only employs autistic people. Or limited hours at traditional places with permanent job coaches, doing things like stocking shampoo at CVS.

Sadly, those supported jobs are very rare. Unemployed, fat, and depressed, most sit on the sofa all day without goals or activities. Everybody needs a job, a purpose in life. In the past, disabled people could always do some job on the farm or in the family kitchen. They felt needed and contributed in some way to the communal good of the family enterprise. Even later, there were factory jobs for people with varying abilities. Employment is much harder in our post-farm, post-industrial world.

What should be done? There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Some employment programs are highly successful at creating opportunities and getting people off the sofa. We should expand those great programs and train more people to act as job coaches. All this requires money, of course, but training those people might lead to paid employment and reduced expenses in other areas, like day programs. In addition, these programs might help all sorts of marginalized people, regardless of their disability status.

PICTURE: Little Italy, Bronx, NY 2019

33 thoughts on “What To Do With The Unemployable?

  1. One of the admirable things about our local dominant grocery chain (Giant Food, subsidiary of Ahold, in Massachusetts their subsidiary is Stop n Shop) is that they hire baggers/cart retrievers who are semi-able. I think shelf stockers, too. I don’t know what they do to meet management challenges there, but it seems to work.


    1. A really small group of people with disabilities find that even that kind of employment. And, McGovern’s son wasn’t willing to do it.


    2. McGovern’s son seems, from her description, to be quite strong minded (and also has intellectual disabilities)


  2. I’m coming to this with no personal experience. I have read “Hard Landings by Cammie McGovern” and an article you linked to, by Michael Bernick in Politico, “Opinion | Americans With Autism Have Never Had More Support — Except When It Comes to Employment”.

    I’ve also been thinking about the comparisons to other programs to get people into the market workplace (an example, Project Feast in Seattle, which helps immigrant women learn cooking skills). I know a little bit about the program The program aims to enhance cooking skills the women might already have, to expand them to commercial cooking, to leverage interest in authentic cooking from other cultures, and teach a marketable skill. During that training period, the goal is to develop a market for the products (restaurants, catering, . . . .) in which purchasers value the training in addition to the food. Project Feast is also a not-for-profit, so there’s fundraising, both donations and a search for grants (private and public) that can support the program. The program sells itself as “graduating” their trainees, but that part requires, for the immigrants, English language skills that aren’t always acquired as part of the training. The success in graduating is a bit more complicated and the track record isn’t there yet, and funders are often looking for that record. They don’t want to subsidize the work of a group that continues to need subsidies.

    Bernick, with his expertise in labor (former director of the California employment development department), ends by saying alternative work environments (i.e. ones that specifically employ people with disabilities) and government employment will need to be a part of the solution, that there will be individuals who can’t realistically find jobs for which they compete with non-disabled workers. Cammie McGovern, found the same for her son’s cohort of children with disabilities, that none found competitive employment.


  3. The small businesses started by parents are like the family farm, I think, and the model parents are basing the business on (and, unlike the family farm, they have subsidies from the government and the potential of developing employment models for others). But, you have to want to run a family farm.


  4. “Some employment programs are highly successful at creating opportunities and getting people off the sofa. ”

    I would love to read more about the successful programs and the models they are using and the funding they are relying on. McGovern profiles a few in her book, but most seemed small, volatile, founder dependent, and not scalable. I was looking at Lighthouse for the Blind as a large organization, and didn’t understand its model.

    One part of Bernick’s idea is for government employers (who don’t have market based competition, and thus don’t have to answer to a bottom line) to employ workers with disabilities.


    1. bj said, “One part of Bernick’s idea is for government employers (who don’t have market based competition, and thus don’t have to answer to a bottom line) to employ workers with disabilities.”

      You might wind up with the job version of Laura’s kid’s 18-21 program–all the kids sitting around on their phones all day.


      1. We may well have a different government and local government environment to you. But I can’t envisage a government dept, who has to account to the electorate for the numbers of staff employed (FTE) finding it possible to employ significant numbers of workers with disabilities.
        You may not have a commercial bottom line in government services, but you have to account to politicians and taxpayers for every cent.

        I’ve had a little skin in the game in the past – when I had to front up to senior management and tell them that, if they wanted to employ people with disabilities (thinking here of intellectual disabilities and people on the spectrum), then they needed to increase the supervisors by .5 for each disabled person employed. It takes a *lot* of time and energy to coach, train and mentor – which is almost never factored into the equation. And, at the end, you have an employee who is, frequently, less capable, than a neurotypical one (i.e. requiring more ongoing staff management).

        Now, that’s not saying that integration never works (because it does), but there’s a lot of resourcing that needs to be applied first, and that resourcing frequently needs to be ongoing. And, customer contact positions (or customer-adjacent positions) are probably not the best place to start.

        In the 90s (gosh, that makes me sound old!) – we had a big push from management to employ people with disabilities as ‘shelvers’ (I think you call them pages) – but the people to re-shelve the books when they’re returned – in our public library.
        This was purely cost-saving: central government funded half the salary, so they only cost half-as-much as a non-disabled staff member.
        Sounds fine, in theory. You ‘just’ need someone who can read, and follow the dewey decimal system, and alphabet.
        However. The shelvers work while the library is open. And a *lot* of people ask them questions: everything from: where’s the bathroom, to the catalogue says this book should be here and it isn’t, to can you help me use the photocopier, to why is the Council wasting my money on this book, to that creepy man is looking at the teen girls. Lots of people don’t want to ‘bother’ the librarian at the desk, but are happy to catch a staff member at the shelves and ask their questions.
        So the shelvers have to have a good knowledge of the library layout and services (teachable), excellent customer service manners (somewhat teachable – though hard for someone on the spectrum to switch quickly from a technical task, to a customer interaction task), and discrimination over what they ‘can’ answer and what they need to refer to higher authority (a very moveable feast, and much harder to teach).

        After I went through the training requirements, and the ongoing staffing for additional support, management decided that they weren’t going to save any money from this, and the idea was quietly dropped.

        We do have what used to be called ‘sheltered workshops’ (don’t know what the current term is). Where people with disabilities (usually intellectual disabilities) work at manual tasks. They’re exempted from minimum wage requirements (or they wouldn’t be commercially viable). But commercial companies hate them – as they regard this as unfair competition. And make it really, really difficult for new ones to start up.


      2. “You may not have a commercial bottom line in government services, but you have to account to politicians and taxpayers for every cent.”

        I think the premise of government employment is that the taxpayers (that is the public) approve of this use of FTE, that is, they support the employment of people with disabilities and their support staff. It couldn’t be done without public support, but that public support might be available.

        The publicly traded companies (Microsoft, for example) are supposed to be beholden to their shareholders and so have to make the argument that their employment practices have a return on interest (which they might when they gain access to talented programmers with disabilities but might be a harder argument to make for employees with intellectual disabilities and other challenges).


      3. When it comes to big business, I can see corporate CEOs shrugging their shoulders and defensively saying that their job is to protect shareholders’ bottom-line interests. The shareholders, meanwhile, shrug their shoulders while defensively stating that they just collect the dividends and that the CEOs are the ones to make the moral and/or ethical decisions.


      4. I’m sometimes told, “But you’re so smart!” To which I immediately reply, frustratedly, “But for every ‘gift’ I have, there are a corresponding three or four deficits.” It’s crippling, on both professional and social-life levels.


    2. bj said “I would love to read more about the successful programs and the models they are using and the funding they are relying on. McGovern profiles a few in her book, but most seemed small, volatile, founder dependent, and not scalable. I was looking at Lighthouse for the Blind as a large organization, and didn’t understand its model. ”

      This is a local success story in NZ – something that’s transitioned from a government initiative, through to a successful trust, with a strong commercial portfolio.


      We use them for sensitive document destruction.


      1. One of the groups profiled in the US profiled by Cammie McGovern seemed to be similar; Searching for Abilities Group gets a Dunn Bradstreet report saying 136 employees and 13.88 million in revenues (and a foundation) (have no idea whether these internet searches yield any meaningful numbers at all, which gives me a rule of thumb of generating 100K/employee (even assuming the number is right, I don’t know how much more is generated through fundraising).

        There’s a coffee shop, that’s been franchising, Bitty & Beau’s, that has a model of employing people with disabilities. I think I saw a support/staff ration of 10 support staff & 20 (or 30, can’t remember) employees with disabilities. The franchises cost 500K and expect families to have 400K of assets + 100K liquid assets. I can’t tell whether the model is that families are buying those franchises to provide employment for children with disabilities (basically, investing a million dollars).


  5. Lots of business owners and managers have frankly become picky assholes since the aftermath of the housing bust left them with a labor market tilted in their favor. They should get over themselves, stop bitching about an unemployment benefit that ended six months ago, and train the people who don’t have jobs or pay enough to hire in the tighter labor market you get if you expect to hire someone who doesn’t need trained.


    1. I don’t know that employers not being exploiters would answer the question of employing people with disabilities entirely, but I do think that (I say this frequently on the blog) efficiency based management that leave no room for any slack play a huge role. If every worker is being exploited to their maximum utility, there is no time left over for what might in many cases be simple kindness (“natural supports”).

      Say, if my height, which is average for a woman, becomes a characteristic requiring accommodation (“picky” employers!), what is the world coming to?


      1. I don’t even think they need to stop being exploiters. They just need to be realistic about how to exploit people. The workforce isn’t what it was. Lots of people retired early, lots of people have compromised immune systems and still are at risk from covid (or they have someone in the house who is), lots of people are still sick from covid (some likely to be long-term disabled), and lots of people now have long gaps in their employment history that are treated as disqualifying by some employers. Given demographic trends, massive hostility to immigrants, and our new national need to remind people not to drink bleach, the workforce is unlikely to get much healthier or larger during my lifetime. Companies that can accommodate someone with disabilities when those disabilities do not impact core functions should find it easier and cheaper to hire workers than those who don’t.


  6. “hopefully he’ll learn to not correct his professor’s grammar.”

    Speaking for myself and as an English professor, I would love it if a student corrected my grammar in class! The other students would probably be annoyed, though, because I would digress and turn it into a grammar lesson.

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    1. I wish other adults would be cool about it. But they tend to get annoyed. And it’s off-topic in his tech classes.

      People have less of a sense of humor than you would think about Ian’s quirks. Because Ian looks totally normal, people tend to think that he’s a smart ass. I seriously worry that he could get punched or arrested for saying the wrong thing to the wrong person.


      1. “People have less of a sense of humor than you would think about Ian’s quirks. Because Ian looks totally normal, people tend to think that he’s a smart ass.”

        I have had so many smart asses in my classes. My strategy is always to welcome their contributions, because they may not be actual smart asses. I had one student once who’d finish my sentences for me if I paused too long to think of the right word. I now realize that that was ADHD, and I am so glad I dealt with it by not getting mad but treating him as a resource. Overall, having a kid with autism/ADHD has made me a better teacher, I think.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’d like to see child-development science curriculum implemented for secondary high school students, which would include neurodiversity, albeit not overly complicated. If nothing else, the curriculum would offer students an idea/clue as to whether they’re emotionally/mentally compatible with the immense responsibility and strains of parenthood.


    2. I wish there was some way to address this practically, because honestly, a quirk of correcting grammar, or even telling someone they are fat can be accommodated by most. I would hope I would have a sense of humor.

      And, the pressure he must feel to not say the wrong thing must be so hard.

      I have a quirk when talking to english language learners: when they don’t understand me, I try to think of other words, but, I reach for my SAT words (say, replacing beautiful with pulchritude). Very unhelpful, and, one might observe me and think I am being mean. I’m trying to learn how to simplify my language, but it is hard. Learning requires me looking at and learning scripts and suggestions. But, at least the language learner doesn’t think I’m being mean, just that I don’t make sense.


  7. One of the things that strikes me reading about employment is that there are a lot of ideas based on stereotypes. For example, the service job with lots of contact with new customers and strangers. And, the presumption that some people with Down Syndrome are very social. I think some are, but not all. There are syndromes associated with “friendliness”, but then every child is an individual. For a social person, supporting the job at the coffee shop or the check out lane might be a big bonus, because it gives them the opportunity to interact with lots of people. But for people with less noticeable quirks, knowing them and a consistent group of colleagues might be most important, ones who can learn not to take outbursts or corrections personally.

    So figuring out what can really work for a particular individual requires a deep understanding of the job and the person.

    That’s true for typically people, too, with more flexibility and learning, and it’s one of the things I discuss with kids who are thinking of career planning, matching their abilities, interests, skills, goals with a particular job, and how that’s harder than you imagine.


    1. We have staff members with autism, but it is really individual, and they have the core skills/training (martial arts – about 7 years’ worth). That said, because our student base also includes a lot of individuals who are on the spectrum, their presence is not just natural, they’re contributing to creating an environment that’s better for our customers. I think sometimes we forget that it’s not just job seekers who are diverse.


  8. Jewel Food stores (a division of Albertson’s) has a system where the bagger is a person with a disability (cognitive, spectrum, Tourette’s, etc) and the checker IS the job coach, or is at least a part of the support team. This is, obviously, a for-profit company, but I assure you that many who shop there do so because they support the social goal. Occasionally, a bagger gets promoted to checker.

    Another example is a local garden center that is a nonprofit. Two non-disabled people are the supervisors, and the rest of the employees have disabilities (again, cognitive and spectrum mainly) They care for the plants, operate the cash register, etc. Our community is aware that if you have a complicated question, you need to go to the guy with white hair.

    A high proportion of the ticket-takers at movie theaters in our area have Down Syndrome. Down people actually have an advantage in some public-facing jobs because people can easily see that they should take their complicated issues to someone else. Also because there is always someone else nearby (ticket sellers, popcorn people) who can help.

    Cleaning and janitorial jobs used to be held by people who had low cognitive ability, but I think liability issues have made that more difficult.


    1. Those are concrete examples of businesses (and customers) making it work. I’m not seeing those businesses here, but I should look harder to find examples.

      I wonder if there are regional differences?

      The checker being the “job coach” and customers knowing the employees are what the literature calls “natural supports”. Do you think the extra work done by the checker is compensated (with time, money or a management position)? Or is her job sufficiently calm that the supervision isn’t onerous, part of her job without refuced duties.

      Bitty and Beau seems designed on the garden center model.

      Here, I just saw an annoying for a new Amazon Fresh grab and go store, where the only customer interaction would be difficult ones.


      1. That’s a good question about extra compensation for the checkers who are job coaches. The older ones with great people skills and patience are the ones who are coaching the ID people with greater need for support. The teenaged checkers don’t get this assignment. I assume that the ones who are coaching get at least a little extra compensation, and they may also be the ones who train/orient new checkers on the requirements of the coaching role. Jewel will give almost anyone a chance at this job, though some don’t succeed because they are super-slow (Jewel customers know to expect a somewhat slower experience at checkout) or they can’t master bagging that doesn’t break the eggs.


  9. Those are great examples of jobs/businesses that are successfully employing people with disabilities.

    I’m hoping that after Ian gets his AA in I.T., he can get a job within the autism-specific departments at Dell or Google. But that’s still a couple of years away.


  10. I have a self-diagnosed condition involving ACE trauma, ASD and high sensitivity — which I freely refer to as a perfect storm of train wrecks. It’s one with which I greatly struggle(d) while unaware, until I was a half-century old, that its component dysfunctions had official names.

    When around their neurotypical peers, young people with ASD typically feel compelled to “camouflage” or “mask”, terms used to describe their attempts at appearing to naturally fit in when around their neurotypical peers, an effort known to cause their already high anxiety and/or depression levels to worsen. And, of course, this exacerbation is reflected in the disproportionately high rate of suicide among ASD people.

    I still cannot afford to have a formal diagnosis made on my condition, due to having to pay for a specialized shrink, in our (Canada’s) supposedly universal health-care system. Within that system, there are important health treatments that are universally inaccessible, except for those with a bunch of extra money. … If one has diagnosed and treated such a formidable condition when one is very young, he/she will likely be much better able to deal with it through life.

    Nonetheless, my experience has revealed to me that high-scoring adverse childhood experience trauma that essentially results from a highly sensitive introverted existence notably exacerbated by an accompanying autism spectrum disorder, can readily lead an adolescent to a substance-abuse/self-medicating disorder, including that involving eating.

    Though I’ve not been personally affected by the addiction/overdose crisis, I have suffered enough unrelenting ACE-related hyper-anxiety to have known and enjoyed the euphoric release upon consuming alcohol and/or THC. The self-medicating method I utilized during most of my pre-teen years, however, was junk food.

    … Oh Lord, the best gift a child can receive really is a healthy, properly functioning brain thus mind for life.


    1. Yes, I’ve read many accounts by folks with high functioning ASD, like yourself, and the obstacles that they face in finding a traditional job in an overstimulating environment. Some big firms are creating sensory safe spaces for people with those issues. However, it’s not a cheap or easy fix; only very large companies can afford to make those modifications. I wish there were more opportunities.

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