To Find Jobs For Those With Intellectual Disabilities, Parents Get Creative
SIMSBURY, Conn. — Noelle Alix and her daughter, Cate, 21, had been all over Simsbury, looking for a job for Cate.
Cate is friendly and outgoing. She’d been voted prom queen at Simsbury High School, and had recently graduated. She was now at the age that scares the heck out of parents of children with an intellectual disability: At 21, all of the mandated school services stop and, quite suddenly, families face some cold realities: The unemployment rate for people such as Cate, who has Down syndrome, tops 80 percent.
“We put out job applications all around town,” said Alix, a lawyer and author. “Little City Pizza was the one business that gave her a job interview.”
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Noelle and Tim Alix weren’t going to squander the opportunity. They hired a job coach who went to work with Cate for three months to make sure she mastered the routine. The job worked out, but the couple still has concerns that every family like them shares: Is a more meaningful job within reach, one that she could have for as long as she wants, in an environment that is heavy on support and learning and growing?
Marina Derman, of Westport, is familiar with this story. A mother of two young men with autism, she has tried for years to find steady work for her older son.
“The job market isn’t doing much to actively hire our folks,” said Derman, a special education advocate who helps other parents navigate the bureaucracy. “Some businesses, certainly, have gotten the message, but there is still ignorance out there, and there is worry about the cost, the training, the performance and even the effect on the rest of the workforce.”
The bottom line, she said, “is that it’s a slog to place our folks. At best, it’s one here, one there.”
What Alix and Derman and an expanding group of parents and investors are learning is that there is a better way. It is an approach that involves great commitment, and taking matters into one’s own hands, and risk.
Alix and her husband have teamed with Susan Johnson and her husband, Steve Tarca, and Kim and Scott and Morrison, the owners of the New England Pasta Co. in Avon, to create a coffeehouse and cafe called BeanZ & Co., inside the Morrisons’ spacious location.
BeanZ would have dedicated equipment and a separate storefront and entrance. People with intellectual disabilities would make up 50 or 60 percent of the workers. Kim Morrison, whose daughter Meghan, 21, has Down syndrome, said she is shooting for a grand opening in early January. Johnson and Tarca, whose son, Harold, 21, has cerebral palsy, have started a nonprofit group, called Be Thoughtful, to raise money to help support the effort.
Kim Morrison said that the intensity of interest from other parents with children with intellectual disabilities and support from her Pasta Co. customers has astounded her.
Derman, nine other parents and a human resources specialist, have joined together in a quest to start a three-screen movie theater in downtown Westport where people with intellectual disabilities will make up 60 percent of the workforce. Derman’s group, called CAPE, for Creating Acceptance Through Purposeful Employment, has drawn interest from a developer. The group is looking at several locations, and their plan is to create a space that can also serve as a community gathering spot, with private, catered parties, and themes inspired by the movies that are playing.
“There will be a variety of jobs. … With the public visibility, our kids will be seen as capable,” said Derman.
Parents and family members are also running, or are a driving force behind, several established businesses, including Roses for Autism in Guilford; Woofgang and Co., a dog biscuit bakery and gift shop in Fairfield; Wilton Swag, which sells items with a Wilton theme; and The Prospector Theater in Ridgefield. In Norwalk, The Crum Together Bakery is opening, begun by three parents and a beloved woman, Freida Hecht at Temple Beth Israel.
And a few young adults are running their own businesses after receiving an initial boost from their parents. Nick Glomb, 30, of Ellington, has owned and operated a hot dog cart for two years, mostly setting up at special events around the state.
“It’s a great source of pride for him,” said Walter Glomb, Nick’s father and the executive director of the Connecticut Council on Developmental Disabilities. “And he’s learning the reality of it, beyond the fun parts — keeping the books, paying the taxes, filing with the state. … It took two years to pass the state food-handler’s exam. He got no breaks on it. It was the same test everyone else took.”
Nick is a sole proprietor, and he’s tireless. Most other people with an intellectual disability need a supportive environment to prosper.
“The truth is, in a competitive job situation, their jobs would always be in jeopardy,” said Pam DonAroma, executive director of an agency, Futures Inc. It has, with strong support from grateful parents, established a successful clothing and gift shop in Berlin, called Good Cause Gifts, and two commercial bakery kitchens in Middletown.
Futures is a nonprofit agency that runs a school, a learning kitchen and other programs. It has successfully parlayed legislation passed in 2014 that created social enterprises, which shields businesses with a social mission from lawsuits filed by stockholders or suitors.
DonAroma said the businesses started by parents will “create meaningful work with an element of unconditional support.”
Derman said there is one unassailable rule among all parents involved in running their own enterprises: “We’re not here for pity sales,” she said. “Buy from us, patronize us because we are offering a good product.”
Once the fundraising efforts began for BeanZ & Co., “the response I’m getting, I can tell you — it has been humbling,” said Kim Morrison, who, with her husband, has run the pasta company for 24 years.
“I get one or two visits a day from parents who have been trying to find jobs for their kids — I call them kids, they are young adults. We’ve gotten calls from people asking about our game plan, our blueprint, because this idea can be taken to other communities and duplicated.”
The ARC of Farmington Valley, known as Favarh, will help identify and place the young adults who will be working at BeanZ, said Stephen Morris, the executive director. The agency is also building apartments, and he said a job and a place to live go a long way toward fostering an independent life.
“You know, we have all benefited from the pioneers before us that pushed our kids into the mainstream in schools,” said Noelle Alix. “The next barrier to overcome is unemployment. That’s our fight to fight.”
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