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These businesses are taking special-needs employees from Disability to ThisAbility, one hire at a time

Employers are changing lives - and strengthening their bottom lines - by hiring those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Eric Cohen, center, rings up a customer while manager Jonathan Dorfman, right, stands ready to help at the New Avenue Cafe in Havertown, PA on October 21, 2019.   The New Avenue Cafe operates inside the Kelly Center and employees special-needs adults.
Eric Cohen, center, rings up a customer while manager Jonathan Dorfman, right, stands ready to help at the New Avenue Cafe in Havertown, PA on October 21, 2019. The New Avenue Cafe operates inside the Kelly Center and employees special-needs adults.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

Employees with intellectual and developmental disabilities are having a moment.

Folks who have Down syndrome or who are on the autism spectrum, for example, are more visible than ever in companies that are embracing — and benefiting from — the hiring of people whose disabilities, in past generations, would’ve kept them from earning a paycheck.

At the Wawa on South Columbus Boulevard, customers delight in watching store associate John Mitchell hawk samples of smoothies with such gusto that he’s been nicknamed the "Sample King.”

At The Precisionists Inc. in Wilmington, colleagues Kalyn Morris and Emily Brymer are winning accolades for their genius in analyzing data for clients like Independence Blue Cross and Exelon.

At Harmelin Media in Bala Cynwyd, Nicole Henderson and Jeremy Zapor bring mail service, office support, and reliable cheer to 250-plus employees.

And at TD Bank in Mt. Laurel, N.J., Ben Riddell is mastering video production, editing, and photography for TD’s in-house media operation.

I could name the “conditions” of these men and women , but that would be antithesis to what the hiring wave is about for a new brand of progressive employers: identifying business needs, finding people with the best capabilities to fulfill them, and getting them on the payroll.

They’ve learned that these employees don’t bring disability to the workplace. They bring this-ability — a unique set of talents and gifts — the way all individuals do, while enriching a company’s bottom line — and making fans of their bosses: According to a survey by The Institute for Corporate Productivity, more than 75% of employers surveyed ranked their employees with IDD as “good” or “very good” on work quality, motivation, engagement, integration with coworkers, dependability, and attendance.

The hiring surge isn’t happening only here. Nationwide, powerhouses like Chevron, Microsoft, Quest Diagnostics, and EY are charging forward to recruit and train people with intellectual or developmental disabilities.

“We’re definitely seeing an uptick in the number of employers contacting us,” said Susan Schonfeld, executive director of Community Integrated Services, which partners with businesses and organizations to find jobs for people with disabilities.

The new word being used to describe these employees is neurodivergent, considered to be a more neutral and accurate descriptor of ability. It implies “the diversity of human brains and minds,” writes autism researcher and author Nick Walker on his blog, Neurocosmopolitanism. So being neurodivergent means “having a brain that functions in ways that diverge significantly from the dominant societal standards of ‘normal.’ ”

For many, that has too long resulted in being denied a shot at jobs in which they might excel if given the chance. The knee-jerk discrimination they experience is as wrong as any that’s based on race or gender.

And just as foolish, said Jose Velasco. To thrive, businesses need a diversity of perspectives, from a diversity of employees, who have a diversity of talents.

“Innovation comes from the edges,” said Velasco, vice president of product development for software giant SAP, and head of the U.S. initiative of SAP’s Autism at Work, which has provided jobs for 160 neurodivergent adults whose ways of thinking zig where others’ zag.

SAP and other employers rely upon a richnetwork of public and private-sector advice and support: nonprofits and educational institutions focused on special needs; government agencies whose incentive programs reward companies that hire from beyond the margins; and peer employers who have found a market advantage by hiring from a bigger hiring pool.

Diversifying the workforce has to start at the top, said Ryan Hammond, executive director of the Eagles Autism Challenge, which raises funds for autism research and programs. It’s the brainchild of Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeff Lurie, whose brother is on the autism spectrum.

“You need someone important to say, ‘This is important,’ ” said Hammond.

The need certainly is: Unemployment among neurodivergent people hovers at 85%.

That’s why companies like The Precisionists Inc., which provides administrative and tech services, is on a mission to create 10,000 jobs by 2025 for neurodivergent adults.

And why three national disability-advocacy nonprofits — Autism Speaks, Best Buddies, and Special Olympics — have just launched Delivering Jobs, an inclusion campaign to create job access to 1 million neurodivergent people, also by 2025.

And why the U.S. Labor Department’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs is pushing for tighter enforcement of an EEOC hiring requirement among contractors and subcontractors who do business with the federal government. The goal is for 7% of that workforce to be composed of people with disabilities.

“It just takes one manager, making one decision, to hire one person,” said Amanda Radcliffe, co-owner of King of Prussia tax software company Vertex Inc., whose company has a robust, in-house program to find, train, and retain neurodivergent employees.

She thinks this region is the perfect place to kick off a hiring movement.

“We’re in such a special spot,” said Radcliffe, whose son, Cal, has autism. “We have so many great organizations working on behalf of people like Cal.”

She ticks off the names: Children’s Hospital, with its Center for Autism Research. The A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, which studies autism from a public-health perspective. St. Joseph University’s Kinney Center, which trains autism educators. The Eagles Autism Foundation, which is raising public awareness. And countless agencies committed to helping people with special needs become employable.

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

“We have a beautiful mode here of cooperation, not competition," Radcliffe said.

My hope is that business leaders who read this special section will sign on to strengthen the momentum — one inspired hire at time.

Ronnie Polaneczky is founding editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer’s UpSide, a section for good news and inspiring stories, and author of the award-winning 2017 Inquirer series “Falling Off the Cliff,” which explored the challenges faced by adults with developmental disabilities and the families who care for them.

How to get started

The organizations below are among many in the Delaware Valley that can help employers learn more about integrating neurodivergent staff into their workforce. (This list is by no means exhaustive; apologies to those not included here.)

Association for People Supporting Employment (APSE)

Best Buddies

Barber National Institute

Community Integrated Services (CIS)

Elwyn Transition Services

Judith Creed Horizons for Achieving Independence (JCHAI)

JEVS Human Services

Ken’s Krew

Kinney Center for Autism Education and Support

Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP)

Office of Vocational Rehab

Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS)

Philadelphia Transition Coordinating Council

Project Search

Special Olympics



Transition Pathways