A couple of years ago, Rabbi Levi Stein, who runs Friendship Circle, a Milwaukee organization that works with children and adults with disabilities, had a perplexing situation on his hands.
One of the organization’s new employees, a disabled man in his 40s, did not show up the first few times he was scheduled to work, coming up with excuses each week, despite expressing excitement over his new job.
“The truth came out. Every week he got into his car and he started driving to work and all of the anxiety started to kick in. Everything from ‘am I going to find parking’ to ‘am I going to mess up,’” Stein said. “Each week he didn’t succeed in making it into the door.”
Stein comforted the man and waited for him the next week at the front door. Since that episode three years ago, the man has not missed a day of work.
“That’s very common. People with disabilities are not given the confidence that they can thrive and succeed,” said Stein, who added that 82 percent of people with disabilities are unemployed. “It’s real. It can stop you from having a job. But knowing that you have an employer that’s supportive and understanding is all the difference you need.”
To help bridge this employment gap and match supportive employers with people with disabilities, the Friendship Circle recently created a program called Partners in Inclusive Employment. The local nonprofit organization has for years been on the front lines of helping people with disabilities find work, with its Fox Point employment training program that includes a coffee shop, bakery and art studio where they learn valuable work skills.
But the new program takes the effort a step further, creating an infrastructure in which potential employers make a commitment to allow for graduates of the training program to apply for work with their business.
“We’re going to share their resume with this network of businesses that we know will support people with disabilities,” Stein said. “What that means is if you have a position available, you give someone with disabilities a shot. It doesn’t mean that you have to hire them, it just means that you give them the opportunity to interview and a fair chance.”
More than 15 employers have signed up for the program thus far, including Azura Memory Care in Fox Point. Jill Kreider, Azura’s president, said the partnership with the Friendship Circle is a natural fit since her business also helps those with incurable, life-long challenges.
“I thought it was a really great opportunity to work with Levi to help support him. They’re supporting us too, by bringing us some great people,” she said. The partnership “creates some amazing opportunities for those who may have challenges themselves and are interested in working with others with challenges.”
Kreider said employers that are considering signing up to participate in the program should focus on the potential employee’s strengths.
“Find out from those individuals what brings them joy and what they can excel in. Really focus on how they can be utilized and how they can be fulfilled in the position,” she said.
Employers who sign up with the program are expected to allow the Friendship Circle to be involved in the new-hire process and to assist the worker with any needs that may arise. Employers must also provide workers with equal pay.
“Sometimes people with disabilities do need a job coach or some extra level of support from a professional to help them transition to be able to be successful,” Stein said.
Stein also asks employers who hire employees from the program to notify Friendship Circle if they are considering terminating the worker to allow program staff to intervene. Lastly, one of the employer’s staff members must participate in one hour each year of inclusion training.
“It is nothing major, but it is something. If you don’t have an hour a year to give then I guarantee you’re not going to have the time to be there to be supportive for someone with disabilities who’s going to work with you,” Stein said.
The new program is emblematic of the organization’s mission in terms of fostering employment for people with disabilities.
“The goal is for all businesses to hire people with disabilities and change the culture,” Stein said. “We’re trying to take it to a whole new level. By creating this program, we’re telling businesses that you know it works, we have proven the concept, now join.”