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‘It wasn’t hard at all:’ HR managers have ample help to hire people with disabilities

Companies don't have to go it alone when it comes to hiring "neurodivergent" employees.

Bill Mitchell, chairman of The Graham Company, and Thomasina Justice pose for a photo at the Graham Company building in Center City.
Bill Mitchell, chairman of The Graham Company, and Thomasina Justice pose for a photo at the Graham Company building in Center City.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / MCT

It was early in May of 2018, and Karen Boyle was feeling anxious. She’s vice president of human resources at the Graham Co. and was preparing for interviews with three job candidates.

Each had an intellectual/developmental disability (I/DD) and was applying for a newly created administrative position at Graham. Each would bring a job coach to their interviews who could help Boyle determine whether the position would be a fit for the company and the candidate.

“The process was outside the norm of what usually happens, and I wanted to make sure that, whoever we hired, we could transition them into the company in the right way,” said Boyle.

The Graham Co., a Center City brokerage, writes insurance for Merakey, a nonprofit that provides supports for people with a range of disabilities. Boyle’s boss at Graham, vice chairman Mike Mitchell, is board chair of Merakey’s charitable foundation and had become aware of how tough it is for people with I/DD to find employment.

“Let’s talk to Merakey about hiring one of their people,” he told Boyle.

In truth, the issue was personal to Mitchell. He was born the middle child of five siblings; his four brothers and sisters had profound intellectual and developmental disabilities and were unable to speak or walk on their own. All were institutionalized at the notorious, now-shuttered Pennhurst State School and Hospital in Spring City, Pa., where three died before they reached their teens. The fourth passed away 12 years ago at age 48.

“I know that world,” said Mitchell, who has been gratified to see how far American society has come in bringing people with I/DD into mainstream life.

Our workplaces, however, have remained stubbornly closed to them. More than 85% do not have paid work in the community, even though talent and ability are as variable among those with I/DD as they are among any other population. As advocates like to say, “Once you’ve met one person with an I/DD, you’ve met one person with an I/DD.”

So Boyle reached out to the folks at Merakey, who identified a handful of applicants for the Graham job, which was to provide clerical support throughout the company’s 190-person workplace. And the interviews got underway.

Eighteen months later, Boyle wonders why she was ever worried. The woman she hired — Thomasina Justice — has blended in wonderfully at Graham, where she is liked and respected for her enthusiasm, work ethic, and perseverance.

“What surprised me was how easy” employing Justice has turned out to be, said Boyle. “The hardest thing has been making sure she doesn’t work too much” because of certain restrictions on some of the government support she receives related to her disability. “Otherwise, it’s been no big deal. And Thomasina is a just great.”

Justice feels the same about working at Graham.

“I love my job — every day is interesting and the people are nice,” said Justice, who helps with mailings, conference and meeting-room setups, restocking supplies, copying and such. ”I was nervous at first. I had to learn how to get here, and take the elevator and use the computer, but now they’re easy. I’ve made good friends. I have a wonderful life.”

Employers don’t go it alone

Across the Delaware Valley, other human-resource managers have been equally startled by the outside support available to companies that hire adults with I/DD (increasingly being referred to as “neurodivergent” adults, a term regarded by advocates as a more neutral and accurate descriptor of ability).

Their positive experiences matter because neurodivergent job candidates may lack some of the behavioral traits that help neurotypical candidates ace a first-round interview. Like being able to look people in the eye. Knowing to shake a hand. Being comfortable making small talk, or speaking confidently about their strengths, or exercising tact born of an awareness of social cues.

So the interview process alone can be an employment barrier to people with I/DD. But so can hiring managers themselves, especially if they have never known a neurodivergent person. Or are wary of being accountable to confusing hiring laws. Or fret that they might do or say something unwittingly offensive to a neurodivergent employee.

It’s enough to make some HR managers avoid considering such candidates altogether.

That’s where “supported employment” can make a big difference. It’s a service provided by disability agencies to help neurodivergent adults find and keep employment via things like job coaching, skills training, assistance with transportation, workplace comportment, and consultation with employers when there’s a change in a worker’s duties. (The services are often funded through federal and state programs; eligibility information is available at

"Our job coaches aren’t there to do the job, but rather to help the adult learn all of the responsibilities, leading them to be independent,” said Carrie Kontis, vice president for Intellectual Disabilities Services at the Barber National Institute. "It’s really a win-win: for the adult, who has this opportunity to have a job in their community, and for the employer, who has a very well-trained, loyal employee.”

Although not every hiring situation requires a coach, said Dianne Malley, project director of the Transition Pathways program at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute. Instead, her staff might train managers in the best ways to communicate with a particular neurodivergent employee, or figure out how to offer visualize support through use of an iPad, which might negate the need for a coach.

“There’s a lot companies can do in-house ,” Malley said.

Many employers partner with agencies like Barber to identify potential neurodivergent hires. That’s what Laura Williams did three years ago when a Barber representative asked if she’d be willing to meet some of their job-seeking clients. Williams, director of human resources at the Courtyard Marriott on City Avenue, answered: “Absolutely!

Today, her hotel employs five Barber clients in kitchen, housekeeping, and laundry positions. Their coaches check with them and Williams constantly, to ensure everyone is happy and on task.

“It has been fabulous,” said Williams, whose hotel was just recognized by the Pennsylvania Advocacy and Resources for Autism and Intellectual Disability for providing a work environment “that has fostered independence, community inclusion and feelings of self-worth” for neurodivergent employees. “These employees are excited to come to work and are so proud of working here. We can’t imagine being without them,” Williams said.

Her sentiment is echoed by Tina Alvarez, head of HR at Chant Engineering in New Britain, who’d never known a neurodivergent adult until last spring when she hired Eric Heppard, 24, as a shop helper at Chant, which manufactures heavy-duty equipment for shipping, rigging, and military clients.

In the beginning, a job coach helped Heppard, who has autism, figure out how to master his duties in the 56-person company: emptying garbage, sweeping floors, breaking down cardboard for recycling, checking stock, and handling other tasks as they arise. Heppard now works solo, with one-hour check-ins as needed.

“I like independence,” he said.

Before he joined Chant, there was constant turnover in the position Heppard now holds; former shop helpers quickly grew bored with the job’s menial tasks. But for Heppard, a shy man who loves repetitive work, it’s a dream gig. His happiness is reflected in his growing interest in his coworkers.

“He’s come out of his shell,” Alvarez said. “You can tell that Chant has started to feel like home.”

Knocking down barriers

At Philadelphia International Airport, Adrienne Walls, who has an I/DD, takes great pride in her civil-service job as a human resources assistant. She works full-time and earns a union paycheck, pension, and benefits, just like her coworkers do. Unlike them, however, she did not take the civil-service exam usually required of new hires — she wouldn’t have been able to complete it. Instead, she was permitted to work in her position for a year, without union benefits, to see if she could handle its myriad duties.

She nailed it — as did three other neurodivergent employees to whom the airport extended similar conditional hiring two years ago. They’ve all been gainfully employed there ever since.

“The airport is special,” said Walls, who loves crossing items off her daily to-do list: stocking the conference-room pantries, shredding documents, monitoring email, and other tasks.

While a junior at Furness High School, Walls was connected with Project SEARCH at Drexel, which offers vocational training and internships to young adults diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and/or an intellectual disability with the goal of competitive integrated employment. She then worked with Community Integrated Supports — which helps neurodivergent job-seekers find work — to connect with the city, which runs the airport. And her adapted process proceeded from there.

“Adrienne has taken so much work off my hands - she’s a great worker,” said her supervisor, Rebeccca Rodriguez. “She’s always ready to take on an assignment and works at it diligently. There’s no procrastinating.”

Walls’ coworkers have been profoundly impacted by knowing her, Rodriguez added.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia companies are changing lives by hiring employees with disabilities

“We implemented diversity training for employees in the division of aviation because a lot of us, myself included, had little experience” with neurodivergent people, she said, and suddenly such people “didn’t seem so far away. Everyone has been very supportive and kind. It’s been seamless, actually.”

Next year, the country will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination based on disability. Before the act was signed, too many physically disabled people who rely on wheelchairs, for example, couldn’t physically get into company offices to apply for a job. The ADA — in forcing buildings to adapt to become wheelchair-accessible — literally opened the doors to employment for a long-denied segment of America’s population.

Today’s hiring managers, by making accommodations that allow for the potential employment of another long-denied segment, are figuratively opening the doors, too.

“It’s hard to believe no one hired him before us,” Chant’s HR manager, Alvarez, said of Heppard, who has found pride and belonging on the job. "This proves there’s a place for everyone. We just have to find each other.”