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