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January 22, 2007

Work wanted | Strive U aims to find jobs for the developmentally disabled. But are companies willing to open the door?

Dick Wigton and his wife, Barb, have run the Portland office of Talent Tree, a staffing company, since 1998, placing temp workers and full-time employees at companies throughout the Portland area.

Two years ago, however, the pair took on a tough assignment: finding jobs for students at Strive U, a program launched in 2004 for people with developmental disabilities ˆ— conditions like Down Syndrome or cerebral palsy.

Strive U, which was launched as part of PSL Services, a social service agency in Portland, trains students to enter the workforce. Two classes of six students each live in apartments, take job skills classes and college electives, and intern at local businesses. The goal? To find part-time office jobs after graduation. But instead of work flipping burgers or doing piecework in a factory, Strive U hopes to help students land office work with pay rates above the minimum wage. "We're really trying to raise the bar as far as [students] having a sense of self-worth and that they're part of a team, the things that all of us look for in a job," says Strive U director Peter Brown.

Some employers, however, are reluctant to participate. Wigton says he's asked about 50 companies to hire Strive U students and graduates, but only 15 have signed on. Many of the companies Wigton contacted have said that while they'd like to help, it's just not something their company can do. "It's easy for companies to brush this off," he says. "They ask, 'What can we have [the students] do? Do we really have the resources to provide mentorship?'"

Many businesses ask similar questions, fearing that accommodations for people with disabilities will cost too much time and money, that their insurance rates will rise, or that they'd face legal trouble if they fired the worker. So while people with disabilities may want to work, they haven't always been able to get jobs. The employment rate for people with mental disabilities, conditions that make learning and concentration more difficult, is just 29%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Even with legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act, which guards against workplace discrimination, the figures have only risen slightly in the last 20 years, says Larry Glantz, a researcher studying disability employment at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service.

Wigton, like other advocates for people with disabilities, hopes companies will take a chance. He notes that the Strive U students have a strong work ethic. What's more, Strive U's Brown says the students could fill a need by taking on basic, administrative tasks like filing and data entry. "We want to provide a solution to things that aren't getting done around the office," he says. "Jobs that might be monotonous to some people, our students would be grateful for the opportunity."

An adjustment period
Noel Thompson graduated from Strive U in August 2006, one of six in the school's inaugural class. Since then, he's worked 12 hours a week in the retail collections department of TD Banknorth in Portland. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, he joins the four-person office to pull customers' credit reports, send invoices and file paperwork. Thompson's still paid through Talent Tree, but soon he'll be on TD Banknorth's payroll, says Judith Adams, human resources director for the bank.

It's not Thompson's first job. As a student at Yarmouth High School ˆ— he graduated in 2000 ˆ— Thompson volunteered as a supermarket grocery bagger, Laundromat attendant and day-care assistant. It was mostly entry-level work that paid minimum wage. At the bank, Thompson makes eight dollars an hour, more than people with developmental disabilities typically earn, says Wigton.

Twenty years ago, people with developmental disabilities often were paid less than minimum wage, doing menial tasks in so-called sheltered workshops ˆ— places that provide job training but sometimes have poor conditions, according to Julia Bell, executive director of the Maine Developmental Disabilities Council in Augusta. In recent years, many such workshops have closed. In their place, a number of local and national organizations, like Community Partners in Biddeford and Creative Work Systems in Portland, are working to help integrate disabled people into the workforce.

Thanks in part to the efforts of these organizations ˆ— as well as the emergence of disability laws ˆ— companies today are more likely to pay someone with disabilities fairly. And some people, like Thompson, took mainstream classes during high school, learning more job skills and wanting a challenge after graduation.

Thompson prefers his job at TD Banknorth to others he's had. "I can be more busy and get to know my other employees," he says.

But holding down a part-time job doesn't mean Thompson is cut off from Strive U. To smooth the transition from school to work, his TD Banknorth supervisor, Michael Marschand, is in regular contact with program director Peter Brown. It's a model employed by many companies hiring Strive U students or graduates. "If you just put a student into a company, they'll get swallowed up and they won't know what to do," says Wigton. "That's a losing proposition."

While Thompson had trouble adjusting to the office at first ˆ— he remembers getting distracted, or not knowing who to ask for more work ˆ— he soon learned to focus, speak up and work on his own, according to Marschand.

Meanwhile, Marschand says Thompson's work ˆ— and his sunny disposition ˆ— is valued. "[He] does allow us to take the time we would have spent doing [his] work and put individuals on more critical stuff," Marschand says. "When he's here, it's kind of uplifting. He's got a good sense of humor."

For his part, Thompson hopes to pitch in more at TD Banknorth, whether it's data entry, learning new computer programs or even acting as office tour guide. Those tasks may be within reach. "I don't want [Thompson] to keep just running the credit reports," says Marschand. "Noel has the ability to learn."

Steve Frawley, president of building materials distributor Emery-Waterhouse in Portland, has hired three Strive U students for six months each, as part of Strive U's job training program. They've done filing and data entry in the purchasing department, a seven-person team that Frawley figured could provide plenty of support. "The benefits we have gained far outweigh the time spent," he says. "There's a determination they bring to the workplace. The students have brought a sense of enthusiasm."

The human solution
Not every company, however, can hire a student permanently, like TD Banknorth or Anthem Blue Cross & Shield in South Portland, which in July 2006 hired a Strive U graduate to do administrative work. Small businesses, for example, sometimes can't afford to add another person on a tight budget.

The Portland Pirates, the city's minor-league hockey team, for three years has hired Strive U students for short-term jobs selling tickets. Pirates President Brian Williams says he enjoys working with the students, but right now doesn't think he could hire a graduate part-time. "We're a pretty small staff," he says. "When you're a full-time staff of nine people, it's not like there are tremendous opportunities for new people."

There aren't always simple tasks for people with developmental disabilities, either. "A lot of companies are so automated that there's not a lot of manual filing to do," says Wigton.

But Wigton hopes companies still can find ways to include more people with disabilities. One of the biggest obstacles, he says, is educating companies about the benefits of hiring someone with a disability. He and Strive U's Brown currently are searching for a full-time recruiter who can help attract more businesses to participate in the program. Ultimately, he'd like 40-50 companies on the roster, so students can have different kinds of experiences ˆ— and so companies can take a break if they wish.

Glantz, too, is working with USM staff to develop an outreach plan for business owners. He hopes to educate them about hiring someone with a disability. These days, he says, they can't afford not to. "Our primary message is, you might be denying yourself an important human resource," he says.

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