Removing employment barriers for New Jerseyans with disabilities

By: - October 20, 2023 7:05 am

The jobless rate for people with special needs — who often need one-on-one training and lack transportation options — is near 80%. (Getty Images)

It took a year of active searching for 24-year-old Sean to get a job after graduating high school.

After working the overnight shift at a supermarket bringing in pallets of products and restocking shelves, the Burlington County man landed a new job at a large warehouse prepping items for transport. But he said he wasn’t given a lot of direction on how to operate some of the systems required for the job. He’s now searching for a new employer.

For Sean, this is tough: He has autism.

“It can be difficult for me to describe being in the workplace while autistic,” said Sean, who asked not to use his last name because of harassment he’s faced over his disability. “The closest I can compare the feeling to is being in a situation where everyone seamlessly connects and you physically can’t. Like going to a foreign nation with no understanding of the culture or language and being asked to blend in with the locals. At times, even the simplest of tasks can seem overly complicated, while others feel like basic intuition.”

The employment situation for people like Sean is dire. The jobless rate for people with special needs — who often need one-on-one training and lack transportation options — is near 80%.

Places like South Orange-based Jespy House help. Jespy is a nonprofit that supports adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, with a focus on individual coaching rather than group training.

“We’re constantly reaching out to employers in New Jersey who are looking for hardworking employees,” said Lisa Fiore, its work readiness and employment engagement manager. “It’s a win-win for everyone. So many people with disabilities are proud to be working, and they work hard.”

Last year, only 21.3% of people with disabilities were employed, up from 19.1% in 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Across all age groups, people with a disability were much less likely to have a job than those with no disability, and the unemployment rate for people with a disability is about twice as high as people without one.

Sungwoo Kahng is a professor in the applied psychology department at Rutgers University. (Courtesy of Rutgers)

Sungwoo Kahng is a professor in the applied psychology department and director of academic programs in autism and applied behavior analysis at Rutgers University, and lead author of a recent study published in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis on teaching adults with autism to successfully navigate job interviews.

Most autistic people and people with other developmental and intellectual disabilities get placed in jobs as opposed to being able to select jobs they want, Kahng said.

In his study, participants learned how to apply for a job, how to answer interview questions, and how to advocate for oneself. Common interview questions that raised anxiety and caused some to get tongue-tied included “tell me about yourself” and “where do you see yourself a few years from now.”

Everyone in the study performed better when coached one-on-one compared to being part of a group, Kahng said.

“Sitting in a conference room listening to how to participate in a job interview wasn’t helpful,” he said. “One-on-one instruction was less stressful. The participants realized they needed guidance and were more open to participating when they received individualized support.”

Getting a job is just the first hurdle. Jespy House provides training that helps people get from their homes to work.

“Once they get a job, getting there can be an issue,” Fiore said. “There’s training on how to ride NJ Transit. We also work with clients on how to use Uber, Lyft, and Access Link.”

Most people prefer ride-hailing services over Access Link, a NJ Transit shuttle service for people with disabilities.

“I have one person who works full time in Jersey City and she lives here in South Orange. She gets out of work at 4:30 each evening. Access Link can sometimes take two hours. So she uses Uber,” Fiore said.

Most Jespy House clients have New Jersey Division of Developmental Disabilities coverage, which makes them eligible to receive support services and can make job coaching and training free. Jespy House and similar organizations also work with the New Jersey Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services to train and place people in jobs. 

Jobs vary for its clients. They work at retail stores, supermarkets, and various large and small companies. One proofreads copy at a publishing house.

Colleen Collick, director of The Arc of New Jersey’s employment program, said she often hears that employees with disabilities rarely call in sick and do their jobs well. Her department employs job coaches to go to a job site to make sure the transition runs smoothly. Coaches also teach employees to advocate for themselves and to ask for transfers and raises.

“We also reach out to school districts so we can present job coaching, transitioning from high school or college to work, and other work-related presentations,” Collick said.

Lawmakers have stepped in to help.

bill under consideration in the Legislature would allow businesses to get tax credits for hiring people with developmental disabilities. And last year Gov. Phil Murphy signed two bills into law aimed at helping people with disabilities obtain state jobs. One of them was sponsored by Sen. Holly Schepisi (R-Bergen), who said the law will help improve the lives of some of our most vulnerable citizens.

“By allowing the state to more effectively recruit, hire, and promote people with disabilities in the workplace, we will help create a more inclusive policy for these individuals and provide better job opportunities for them in the future,” she said.

For Sean, he hopes to find a job learning to code or utilizing his interest in literature. More than anything, he said, he wants employers to be flexible and help people like him.

“Having someone calmly guide someone who has autism to what they need without becoming impatient is paramount for us to become comfortable and efficient in a workplace,” he said.

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Michele C. Hollow
Michele C. Hollow

Michele C. Hollow covers health, mental health, pet care, and climate for a variety of publications including The New York Times, WebMD, Parents, AARP, The Guardian, and Symphony Magazine. She’s a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists and loves being a journalist because it’s a form of continuing education. She resides in New Jersey with her husband, their son, and their cat.