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New Job Alternatives for People with Special Needs

Insights & Ideas Team •  September 30, 2015 | Business and Careers

When you have a child with intellectual disabilities, concerns about his or her long-term well-being and independence are never far from your mind. How will he transition from school into the community? Can she live on her own? Who will take care of him if something happens to me?

Unfortunately, the question of whether someone with intellectual disabilities will find meaningful work doesn’t always have a happy answer. Only 34 percent of U.S. adults ages 21-64 with intellectual disabilities have jobs, according to the “National Snapshot of Adults with Intellectual Disabilities in the Labor Force,”
a 2013 survey commissioned by Special Olympics. Almost all adults with intellectual disabilities work less than full time and earn less than the minimum wage.

And then there’s Alexis Malloy, president and owner of AJ Special Services, a company specializing in clerical work, based in New Berlin, Wisconsin. Alexis is 25-years-old and has Down syndrome. She’s also part of a growing movement of people with disabilities working toward independence through self-employment and entrepreneurship.

Thriving Thanks to a Unique Business Plan

Alexis has built a successful business by capitalizing on her strengths and resources. Through AJ Special Services, she goes to her clients’ offices and performs repetitive tasks such as assembling sales folders and binders, shredding documents or performing high-speed scanning. When she’s not doing office work, she provides micro-enterprise services such as dog walking or child care. All of these services are made possible with the help of a job coach.

Job coaches are frequently one of the “reasonable accommodations” outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. According to the Job Acommodation Network, funding for job coaches most often comes from state vocational rehabilitation agencies, but managed care organizations or employers may also pay for them. Depending on the needs and abilities of the person being coached, a job coach can help him or her learn a job, provide ongoing support, strategize effective accommodations or help the person engage in appropriate social interaction on the job.

In Alexis’s case, job coaches also drive her to and from work. She maintains a repetitive schedule to make scheduling easier and seeks out customers who are willing to enter into a long-term contract to minimize disruptions to her schedule.

“We opportunistically look for customers who want to enter into a five-year contract,” says Ron Malloy, Alexis’s dad and the executive director of the Down Syndrome Association of Wisconsin – Family Services.

Malloy credits his daughter’s success and independence to the infrastructure they have built around her, which also allows her to live on her own with the help of video caregivers. Her tele-caregivers wake her up in the morning, make sure she has on the right clothes for the day’s weather and—thanks to strategically placed cameras—let her know if it’s safe to answer the doorbell. If she needs assistance, they’ll open up a Skype connection and talk with her.

Advice for Families Exploring Job Alternatives

For adults with intellectual disabilities, there’s a nationwide movement toward “employment first,” and 32 of the 50 states have employment-first policies, says Malloy. That means there’s an expectation that people with disabilities will try community-based employment at least twice before entering a sheltered workshop, which is a supervised workplace exclusively for them.

Many young men and women with intellectual disabilities start out in community-based retail businesses to gain training, experience and confidence, but for long-term success and independence, Malloy recommends considering self-employment. His advice for creating a business model is:

  • Look for sustainable employment for life. Choose a service that has long-term viability.
  • Pick something you love to do.
  • Build in the necessary structure to minimize the impact of the disability and maximize the output and value to the customer.
  • Partner with your local Department of Vocational Rehabilitation office.

Wisconsin’s Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, for example, has created a Customized Self-Employment Toolkit to help people with Down syndrome develop business opportunities. Alexis was among the first clients to use the toolkit and will be the first business owner with special needs in her county to make it to five years. “Two people have shadowed her and started their own businesses with her help and inspiration,” says Malloy.

He believes that these tools and resources can help anyone with an intellectual disability become a successful entrepreneur. “Through a combination of skills development, accommodation with technology and caregivers, and community sensitivity training,” says Malloy, “anyone with any disability can have an amazing and independent life.”

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