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Job market welcomes more people with disabilities

New Hampshire Union Leader - 8/4/2019

Aug. 4--HOOKSETT -- As commercial dryers whirled nearby, Robin Coleman and Nancy Foote folded sheets with precision.

The two tackled laundry and made sure the public areas sparkled at the Fairfield Inn & Suites.

Both women are developmentally disabled and drawing regular paychecks.

"I'm thinking to stay here until we get old," said Coleman, who turned 40 last week.

This is the first job for both women, who received six months of hands-on, hotel-industry training organized through The Moore Center.

"We would not be here" otherwise, Coleman said. "It was hard to find a job."

In a tight job market, more companies are turning to those with disabilities to fill job vacancies.

Employment numbers for New Hampshire residents with disabilities jumped 13.4% between a 2009-11 period and a 2017-19 period, according to Dover economist Brian Gottlob, who recently became director of the state's economic and labor market information bureau.

That compared to only 2.9% growth for people without disabilities during those same periods.

"Optimistically, what it says is the labor force constraints, the very tight labor market, has employers looking in places and at individuals that previously had more difficulty finding employment," Gottlob said last week. "I think it creates opportunities for the disabled that might not have been as prevalent in the past."

Manchester's Moore Center, which assists people with developmental and intellectual disabilities and acquired brain disorders, has about 85 clients working in the Manchester area, including four at the same Fairfield hotel.

"It just changes their aspect of life," said Miranda Brown, the center's senior manager of employment services.

Clients have found jobs in dining services, housekeeping, merchandising, manufacturing and maintenance.

"Before they get a job, you build on a lot of social skills," including resume building and interviewing, Brown said.

This fall, The Moore Center is partnering with the Birch Hill Retirement Community in Manchester, so interns can receive hands-on experience. Saint Anselm College also will be providing an educational component, Brown said.

Fairfield General Manager Kim Hanson said Foote and Coleman have advanced "astronomically" with their social skills and self-confidence since arriving there about eight years ago.

"They take a lot of pride in everything they do," Hanson said. "(A vacancy in) housekeeping is extremely hard to fill."

A report by the Institute for Corporate Productivity showed three-quarters or more of employers rated workers with intellectual or developmental disabilities as good to very good on most performance factors, including dependability, attendance and integration with co-workers.

"Coworkers are more productive when surrounded by dependable, motivated workers; job satisfaction declines when surrounded with no-shows, late arrivals, and disinterested colleagues," the report said.

Early outreach

Some Granite State organizations also are reaching into the lives of younger people with disabilities.

Southern New Hampshire University has partnered with the Manchester School District this summer to help 410 public school students with disabilities, including 200 at the elementary level. It saved the district $7,000.

About three dozen grad students, who each receive a stipend, are in the classroom at three schools with teachers and students, from pre-kindergarten to high school.

Jennifer Harrises, the district's special education coordinator for secondary schools, said the SNHU involvement -- including having some children working with robots and catapults -- means "more hands-on and enriched" learning than they would have received in the summer.

"Any time you get children excited about learning and raising opportunities for them, I think you absolutely increase the likelihood of them continuing to learn, continuing to believe they do have a place in the workforce," said Catherine Stavenger, SNHU associate dean of the School of Education. "They develop that confidence of learning and being a problem solver, and that goes a long way."

Innovative programs

In New York, a not-for-profit organization called Careers Support Solutions set up 63 summer internships last year with various employers for mostly high school students with disabilities.

Teens without disabilities frequently have summer jobs where they learn job skills and the value of money, so getting those with disabilities into the workforce earlier will get them learning sooner, according to Tina Cornish-Lauria, executive editor of the Valhalla, N.Y.-based organization.

"See what they like and what they're good at," she said.

The organization also has a contract with New York State's education department to run a workforce readiness job club. Students learn soft skills, such as resume writing and job interviewing and how to handle money, Cornish-Lauria said.

Last year, Careers Support Solutions started a program, also funded through the state, to help students who are graduating and heading to community college. Employment specialists help with class scheduling and financing and arrange any needed tutoring. They sometimes find students jobs during school or after graduation.

"It would be a model certainly they could work off of," Cornish-Lauria said, referring to other states.

The organization, which helps people in three counties north of New York City, has placed more than 2,700 people with disabilities in jobs over the past three decades.

In Concord, the Disability Rights Center deals with people with disabilities who don't get the support they need or face discrimination in the workplace.

"In terms of employment for people with disabilities, I think there are a lot of opportunities," said Executive Director Stephanie Patrick.

A national group, Best Buddies, offers jobs programs in some offices around the country for intellectually and developmentally disabled people.

"It's something we're working real hard to bring to New Hampshire," said state director Sarra Dennehy.

She said she hopes to receive enough fundraising to start such a program here in 2021.

Best Buddies has secured jobs for 687 people nationwide over the past several years.

Back in Hooksett, Hanson, the Fairfield GM, said Foote and Coleman get along with their peers.

"In regards to getting along with traditional workers, there's no difference," Hanson said.

"They joke just as much and razz just as much," she said, adding, "They may take a little longer to learn the process."

Foote recently participated in the Special Olympics, bringing home one bronze and three silver medals in track and field. And she enjoys the people she works with at the Fairfield.

"I want to stay here forever," she said.

What's Working, a series exploring solutions for New Hampshire's workforce needs, is sponsored by the New Hampshire Solutions Journalism Lab at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications and is funded by Eversource, the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, the New Hampshire College & University Council, Northeast Delta Dental and the New Hampshire Coalition for Business and Education.

Contact reporter Michael Cousineau at mcousineau@unionleader.com.

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(c)2019 The New Hampshire Union Leader (Manchester, N.H.)

Visit The New Hampshire Union Leader (Manchester, N.H.) at www.unionleader.com

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