The families of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities have been at the forefront of every movement to advance their loved ones’ rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
They’ve fought for help to care for them outside of institutional settings. They’ve demanded that they receive an appropriate public education. And they’ve pushed for jobs that both accommodate neurodiversity and tap into its gifts.
Frustrated by how elusive employment remains (there’s an 85% unemployment rate among adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities), some parents declare, “We’re not waiting anymore.” And they launch businesses so their children will know the dignity, stability, and pride that comes with having a job.
Here are three family-founded companies that give neurodivergent people a chance to participate in the American workforce.
In 1980, Charles and Louise “Weezie” Baker opened a small direct-mail business in their garage that would provide jobs for their son, Justin, and other adults with disabilities.
Today, about 200 people a year are employed at Baker Industries, a nonprofit workforce-development program with locations in Malvern and Kensington. They perform light industrial work: packaging, assembling, kitting, shrink-wrapping, and mailing for over 80 companies across the Philadelphia region.
In addition, employees can participate in workshops, coaching, and training designed to help them achieve career potential. Each year, 25 to 35 employees move on from Baker to other jobs in the mainstream economy.
“Our program makes a real difference in reducing poverty and strengthening families and communities," said Baker’s president, Rich Bevan, noting that over 80% of Baker’s workers are low-income.
Jimmy Paulits, 28, lives in Berwyn with his father and has been working for two years at Baker, where he’s fascinated by the equipment.
“My job is great, and my favorite thing here involves using the shrink-wrapper and the conveyor,” said Paulits. Prior to this job, he worked for Handi Crafters in Thorndale, a “sheltered workshop” that serves a wide range of adults with disabilities and offers clinical support on-site. But Paulits wanted to work in a standard production environment, he said.
Baker provides full- and part-time work at the federal minimum wage. In recent years, the company has begun offering workforce integration for other hard-to-employ adults, like those with criminal convictions or substance-use disorders. Employees do not need federal funding to be eligible to work at Baker.
“Combining these diverse populations into one effective team demonstrates for employers the flexibility and adaptability of individuals to successfully integrate into a regular work community,” said Bevan.
A good job is foundational to reducing recidivism, he added, creating financial stability, promoting recovery, and providing acceptance and community for vulnerable adults.
“We also find that putting together adults with cognitive and learning disabilities with parolees and recovering addicts leads to some incredible mentoring,” Bevan said. “They learn empathy for each other along with learning how to work in a mainstream environment.”
Classic Rock opened in June in Richboro, the brainchild of Brian Damiani and Michael Fitzgerald, who both have sons with autism (Cole Damiani is 31, and Shawn Fitzgerald is 22). The young men needed work after aging out of high school programs that had supported them.
“We hire only special-needs adults, then we train them in auto detailing and handwashing, waxing — the works,” said Damiani, who befriended Fitzgerald when they were running baseball and hockey leagues for their kids.
Although the Fair Labor Standards Act allows employers to pay less than minimum wage to certain workers with disabilities, the special-needs employees of Classic Rock Auto Detail earn the full federal minimum wage, Damiani said.
Since June, employees have worked on more than 110 cars at Classic Rock (where prices range from $20-$25 for hand-wash service, more for inside-outside detailing). The company’s slogan — “Attention to detail that could make a grown man cry” — is an homage to the Rolling Stones hit “Start Me Up,” which popularized a version of the phrase.
The song is a classic, and this shop aims to be one, too.
Mike and Terri Grant created Crafters For Life LLC in May 2015 to create and sell products produced by neurodivergent employees, who also help handle branding, marketing, e-commerce, retail sales, and sourcing of materials. The company offers its merchandise online and at retailers such as Monkeys Uncle at 21 E. State St., Doylestown. It has also partnered with existing nonprofits that run adult day programs to incorporate the company’s crafts program.
“We started the company for our son, Dylan, who has autism, after realizing that job opportunities for him would be scarce,” said Mike Grant. “Our goal was to generate a paying job for him and others with special needs, doing something that’s real.”
The concept sprang out of Dylan’s autistic support class at Council Rock School District in Bucks County. In 2014, speech language pathologist Joanne Curry and autistic-support teacher Cemantha Giulian oversaw a project in which students made their own crafts and sold them. The project was such a success that the Grants spun it into Crafters For Life.
“We still work closely with those teachers and have provided inventory for a number of holiday sales in the area,” Grant said.
Adult workers at Crafters For Life are paid an hourly wage to make items like coasters, key chains, scarves, paintings, and eye pillows. The company also fills orders for weddings, birthdays, and corporate events.
Crafters for Life accepts financial donations, said Grant, but “quite frankly we would prefer that you purchase products from our online store and help us to spread the word."